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Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G: Technologies and Applications Analysis

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Posted on August 28, 2020
October 1, 2020
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It's known that 5G networks will provide 50x more speed, 10x less latency, and 1,000x more capacity than its predecessor 4G/LTE, delivering faster connectivity for better user experiences. Wi-Fi 6, the 6th generation of Wi-Fi technology with a theoretical bandwidth of 9.6Gbps, provides higher speed, larger capacity, better efficiency, wider coverage, lower power consumption, smarter management, and more devices to serve simultaneously. Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are the latest versions of their respective technologies. What are their similarities and differences? And what about the applications of 5G and Wi-Fi 6? An in-depth analysis of Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G will be unfolded.

Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Comparison

Next-Level Connectivity – Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Comparison

5G vs Wi-Fi 6: friends or foes in the wireless field? It's not one-sentence stuff. Both of them are designed for wireless connections. The differences between these two technologies lie in various aspects. Focusing on the techniques and characteristics, the following part will compare and contrast Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.

Technologies Shared by Wi-Fi 6 and 5G

OFDMA Technology

Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) has evolved from OFDM. Normally speaking, the entire channel will be occupied when one sends data no matter the size of the packets. Multiple access is achieved with the aid of OFDMA by assigning subcarriers to individual users, allowing simultaneous low-data-rate transmission from several users. The following diagram will visually present the remarkable strength of OFDMA compared with OFDM:

OFDM vs OFDMA

Without queuing or channel preemption, OFDMA has largely reduced the delays and improved the efficiency, which is ideal for multi-user scenarios when a large number of small data packets are transmitted. Wi-Fi 6 just adopts this technique to increase spectrum utilization efficiency. The standard air interface technology employed by 5G is also derived from OFDM and has a similar design to OFDMA in terms of subcarrier and frequency bandwidth.

MU-MIMO Technology

MU-MIMO stands for "multi-user, multiple input, multiple output." The working principle of MU-MIMO can be boiled down essentially: a wireless network that allows the transmitting and receiving of more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio channel, which increases the data capacity of a narrowband network without requiring more spectrum.

Wi-Fi 6 improves this technology and enhances it by supporting uplink MU-MIMO that enables up to 8x8 antenna arrays than Wi-Fi 5. 5G also adopts this technology but upgrades it to "Massive MIMO." As the name implies, the number of antenna ports can be up to 64T64R (64 transmit, 64 receive) for wider coverage. The implements can be also called "3D MIMO" due to the support for both horizontal and vertical directions.

MU-MIMO vs Massive MIMO

Features Inherent in Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G

Spectrum Usage

2.4 GHz and 5 GHz are the two frequency bands that Wi-Fi 6 carries. 2.4 GHz band is used as a wireless frequency commonly but with high interference. 5 GHz Wi-Fi frequency band is faster in speed and better in anti-interference. Due to the higher frequency nature, its transmission distance is shorter. With the permits of more frequency bands, Wi-Fi 6 can be extensively developed in the future.

5G frequency bands can be divided into two categories. The frequency bands lower than 3 GHz have been used on existing networks with diverse usages. As a result, 3.5 GHz frequency bands are mainly used in the 5G era. The sub-6 GHz (operating below 6 GHz) can also be used for 5G applications, which offers stronger coverage and penetration capabilities.

Currently, the frequency bands used by Wi-Fi are free of charge, indicating that any person or company can use these bands without registration. Compared to Wi-Fi, the 5G spectrum is a strategic resource that can only be sold to carriers of the country. Actually, some governments have begun to allocate 5G spectrums to business entities for the combination of telecom and vertical industries, but the spectrum sharing still is considered as a problem that needs to be considered.

Network Devices

Embedded with the Wi-Fi function, countless devices like smartphones, laptops, printers, projection TVs are allowed to access personal or enterprise networks. Current WLAN APs support IoT protocols, enabling these devices to be directly connected to the Wi-Fi network. If some of the devices don't support Wi-Fi, they may rely on RFID, ZigBee, or Bluetooth. Unlike Wi-Fi, the 5G networks emphasize more on personal mobile terminal prioritization, allowing most mobile phones and some tablets to access cellular networks using SIM cards.

Network Stability

Users may find that Wi-Fi networks seem to be less stable than cellular networks. That is because the Wi-Fi frequency bands are public and prone to interference, so conflicts will happen as the number of users increases. OFDMA and MU-MIMO adopted in Wi-Fi 6 will effectively solve this problem by improving network efficiency and capacity. Therefore, wireless network stability increases dramatically in the Wi-Fi 6 era, not inferior to 5G.

Network Flexibility

Wi-Fi networks are flexible and convenient to deploy or expand. If more users are involved or wider coverage is required, the deployment process is to add APs and customize policies to control the network resources accessible to different types of terminals and their access bandwidth. The new terminals can easily access the Wi-Fi network by creating an account. But for a 5G network, access traffic of all terminals must pass through the carrier's network, resulting in inefficient transmission. When a new terminal attempts to access the network, applying for a license is a must. What's more, carriers must assist if any expansion of network coverage is required.

Network Security

WPA3, the next generation of Wi-Fi security, is indispensable for Wi-Fi 6 devices, which makes Wi-Fi 6 more secure. Ensuring users' authentication request packets are encrypted, 5G solves the issue about user information leakage left by 4G. Additionally, 5G also enhances security by extending the key length from 128 bits to 256 bits. A longer key means higher security.

Summary: Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Comparison Table

Item Wi-Fi 6 5G
Modulation 1024QAM 256QAM
MIMO 8T8R/12T12R-8 streams Indoor: 4T4R-4 streams
Outdoor: 64T64R-16 streams
Typical Frequency Bandwidth Campus: 80 MHz
Household: 160 MHz
100 MHz (in total)
Frequency Free of charge, no limitation Limited, controlled by carriers
Per-user rate 100Mbps 100Mbps
Interference Unlicensed, exist interferences Licensed, no interference
Terminal Types Various enterprise terminals (PCs, projectors, monitoring devices, etc.) Mainly mobile terminals, few enterprise devices embedded with SIM cards
Security Guaranteed security High air interface security
Management Enterprise management personnel Carriers
Deployment Period SME: within one month depending on the specific size
Large-sized enterprise: 2-3 months
LAN: 4-5 months
WAN: 1-1.5 years
Costs Relative low for enterprise LAN Relative high for enterprise LAN

Next-Gen Application – Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Analysis

5G is a new trend in the telecom industry and has benefited more and more users. Since 5G can cover both the inside and outside of complexes, Wi-Fi technology will no longer be needed? 5G vs Wi-Fi 6, will 5G push Wi-Fi into obscurity? Trying to pick a winner between them is just missing the point. The following analysis will show how these two technologies differ and complete each other.

Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Application

Indoor Coverage

On the one hand, both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can be deployed in daily network connection inside the building. Generally, 5G can accommodate one terminal per square meter, equating to one million terminals per square kilometer. Therefore, this solution is not suitable for the sites where each user has at least two terminals or for some high-density areas. With the flexible Wi-Fi 6 solution, this problem can be easily handled. Wireless AP is a de-facto choice for most users. The AP's transmit power can be controlled to reduce the coverage area. Therefore, two or three terminals can be connected to the network synchronously per square meter. Besides, directional antennas can be deployed to cover special areas with high-density access requirements.

On the other hand, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can also be applied for IoT services. 5G massive machine-type communications (mMTC) is designed for connecting massive IoT devices. But it is difficult to directly install 5G NICs on the necessary devices for communication due to the different IoT protocols required for different applications. Most of the WLAN APs now have integrated function modules like RFID, ZigBee, and Bluetooth, and can support more IoT protocols via external cards. Combining IoT with Wi-Fi will offer a cost-effective solution, which makes Wi-Fi fit for indoor scenarios with massive IoT devices.

Outdoor Coverage

Typically, outdoor Wi-Fi 6 is mainly used to provide users in some high-density scenarios like parks & playgrounds, while 5G is better suited to provide larger scale outdoor coverage such as scenic spots. 5G outdoor macro base stations outperform Wi-Fi 6 in both coverage range and roaming. Therefore, 5G is now the optimal choice for supporting autonomous cars, drones, and some IoT devices (such as smart street lamps) in smart cities.

Here is a sketch to show the typical application scenarios of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G for both indoors and outdoors.

Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G_ Indoor and Outdoor Application

Entertainment Exploration

Emerging applications in the entertainment field like VR/AR/4K/8K have high bandwidth requirements. For example, 4K requires a bandwidth of more than 50 Mbps whereas VR/AR requires a bandwidth of over 100 Mbps.

5G adopts two high-frequency bands to improve user bandwidth: Sub-6G and mmWave – the former supports the maximum frequency bandwidth of 100 MHz, while the latter with 400 MHz. Due to their large size and limitations on installation space, smaller 4T4R MIMO antennas are generally used rather than 64T64R Massive ones. Since the number of micro base stations deployed must match the number of APs, the costs of indoor 5G coverage have increased accordingly.

All of the high-performance Wi-Fi 6 APs support 8x8 MIMO with three non-overlapping channels in the 80 MHz frequency bandwidth. A terminal supporting 2x2 MIMO, theoretically, whose 80 MHz frequency bandwidth can provide a bandwidth of 1.2 Gbps, easily meeting the bandwidth requirements of VR/AR/4K. Yet 5G is better for those latency-sensitive remote assistance VR applications that only one user is getting involved at a time.

Industrial Manufacturing

Traditionally, manufacturers could only connect applications through wired technologies. The emergence of devices like AGVs, industrial AR, and machine vision are applied on a large scale making IoT wireless networks a necessity for production workshops. Wi-Fi 6 with high bandwidth and low latency can meet the demands for industrial production networks, which are deployed for wireless access in some intelligent production and manufacturing scenarios.

In some specific situations that have applications extremely sensitive to latency, like collaborative robots requiring a latency of less than 5 ms, it's inadvisable to transmit the data of such applications (requiring a latency less than 20 ms) over Wi-Fi networks. 5G will provide an optimal solution for this kind of scenario.

Wi-Fi 6 vs 5G Pros & Cons Table

Wi-Fi 6 5G
Pros Mainstream enterprise wireless solution.(spectrum, terminals, easy and flexible deployment, better management, expenses.) Leading wireless technology. (MIMO, service latency, mobile roaming, outdoor coverage)
Cons Not perform well in large-scale outdoor coverage scenarios.
Cannot meet the ultra-low latency requirements (< 10 ms).
Higher costs for indoor deployments.
Weak terminal compatibility.
Carriers must participate in 5G deployment.

A New Era of Seamless Wireless Access: Wi-Fi 6 Joint 5G

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technologies are poised to have profound impacts on all walks of life. Although some of the functions and applications of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G may overlap, all the signs are still pointing to us that taking the advantages of both technologies is wiser and will bring the maximum benefits to the enterprises.

Despite that 5G is growing vigorously and begins to be adopted in some vertical industries now, it still needs a while before being applied to enterprises maturely and fully. But for Wi-Fi 6 technology, there are many applicable solutions for enterprises in various fields at present. That is because adopting Wi-Fi 6 technology in network deployment will help to establish the networks more quickly and reduce the operational expenses, better for the enterprises' customizations at the same time. 5G networking that fits for high roaming and latency requirements focuses more on public networks now. With the development of 5G technology, it will also play an important role in the Wi-Fi network upgradings.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G each have their respective most applicable scenarios where neither can replace the other. Combining 5G with Wi-Fi 6 is an inevitable trend for public and private networks in the predictable future due to their complementary roles. Selecting the most appropriate technology according to the scenario requirements will help enterprises to improve efficiency with fewer budgets, accelerating the digital transformation eventually.