How Will Wi-Fi 6 and 6E Intersect with 5G?

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By Andrew Zignani | 3Q 2020 | IN-5895

5G technology will not only bring support for enhanced mobile broadband, but also massive low-power Internet of things (IoT) applications, alongside much better support for mission-critical IoT applications, to enable ultra-reliable, high throughput, low-latency, robust, and resilient communications in areas such as industrial manufacturing, remote surgery, and autonomous vehicles, among many others. At the same time, however, Wi-Fi continues to evolve with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, bringing new benefits for a variety of applications, many of which are likely to overlap and intersect with potential 5G use cases.

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5G and Wi-Fi Continue to Evolve


5G technology will not only bring support for enhanced mobile broadband, but also massive low-power Internet of things (IoT) applications, alongside much better support for mission-critical IoT applications, to enable ultra-reliable, high throughput, low-latency, robust, and resilient communications in areas such as industrial manufacturing, remote surgery, and autonomous vehicles, among many others. At the same time, however, Wi-Fi continues to evolve with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, bringing new benefits for a variety of applications, many of which are likely to overlap and intersect with potential 5G use cases.

Wi-Fi 6 technology represents the next phase of Wi-Fi’s evolution in the 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz bands, but it is more than just faster Wi-Fi we normally think of with traditional Wi-Fi upgrades. New enhancements, such as Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) helps reduce frequency fading and interference issues, resulting in increased throughput, lower latency, and more efficient use of the spectrum. This helps Wi-Fi 6 deliver significantly higher capacity in dense environments, better mitigate the effects of contention, and more closely resemble scheduling-based methods in cellular technologies, providing much more deterministic performance than ever before. The extension of Multi-User (MU)-Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) enables Access Points (APs) to service more devices at the same time, Target Wake Time (TWT) allows clients to sleep for longer periods of time, reducing power consumption, and Basic Service Set (BSS) coloring helps ignore traffic communicating the same frequencies on another network, helping improve reliability in very dense environments where there are overlapping APs. Wi-Fi 6 is also backwards compatible, meaning the huge installed base of devices built up over time in various enterprise environments can still easily connect to the network once deployed. At the same time, additional Wi-Fi security features, such as WPA3, have been introduced alongside Wi-Fi 6 to bolster encryption.

However, the most exciting change to the Wi-Fi landscape is the projected increased availability of 6 GHz spectrum over the next few years. On April 23, 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to approve 1.2 GHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 6 GHz band available for Wi-Fi, with other regions anticipated to follow suit. As a result, Wi-Fi 6 and its new features have been extended into the 6 GHz band, now known as Wi-Fi 6E, and while the global regulatory landscape for 6 GHz outside the United States is still being finalized, it is hard to overstate the potential that 6 GHz can bring to Wi-Fi networks. The technology could bring about much higher throughput, much more capacity, greater reliability, lower latency, and better Quality of Service (QoS) than ever before, solving many of the key challenges that Wi-Fi is facing today, and addressing many 5G class use cases. But how will these technologies compete and collaborate with 5G across different market verticals?

Will 5G Kill Wi-Fi?


Keeping Wi-Fi 6 and 6E in mind, the key question is how the relationship with 5G will evolve and what these technologies will mean for 5G deployments in the years to come. A number of publications, whitepapers, and articles have a variety of perspectives on what 5G means for Wi-Fi. Many of these take the perspective that 5G marks the death of Wi-Fi, that it is an either/or solution, that Wi-Fi loses its value proposition in the 5G era, and that over time it will be replaced or eradicated. However, ABI Research believes that Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and in the future, Wi-Fi 7, are not only complementary to 5G, but are fundamental enablers of high-throughput, low-latency, reliable, and robust wireless services within indoor and industrial environments. To dig a little deeper into each segment, ABI Research expects the following relationships to evolve between 5G and Wi-Fi:

  • Homes: In home environments, ABI Research expects Wi-Fi to continue to dominate, bolstered by new improvements brought about by Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E. It will remain the optimum way of connecting a variety of mobile devices within the home, such as smartphones and tablets, but also able to support a variety of connected and smart home devices, such as smart TVs, game consoles, smart appliances, smart speakers, thermostats, and other emerging devices. 6E will bring a boost to Wi-Fi mesh devices, offering 160 Megahertz (MHz)-wide channels to deliver gigabit throughput to each room in the home. 5G and 60 GHz WiGig technologies may also be leveraged in Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) opportunities in the home.
  • Enterprises: Enterprises will, of course, benefit from the better density performance of Wi-Fi 6 and additional capacity and wider channels of the 6 GHz band. Wi-Fi is still regarded as the optimal and most cost-effective technology for a variety of enterprises, including schools and universities, offices and smart buildings, and healthcare environments. Upgraded and backwards compatible Wi-Fi will also cater to the massive installed base of Wi-Fi devices in these environments, while enabling new services thanks to improved latency and high connection density performance. However, cellular technologies will help deliver for larger campuses and where outdoor coverage is required.
  • Public Venues: Public venues, such as stadiums, conference venues, and auditoriums, will all benefit from the aforementioned density and capacity improvements of Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, which can better provision resources in crowded deployments than ever before. New Wi-Fi APs from companies like Qualcomm that support Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi 6E can support up to 2,000 clients at once, significantly improving capacity and scalability. However, thanks to the intense loads of these environments, there is likely to be a combination of cellular and Wi-Fi technologies to help ensure optimal coverage as demands increase over time.
  • Manufacturing: For industrial applications, ABI Research expects it will be necessary to adopt both Wi-Fi and 5G technologies depending on the environment and use cases. While Wi-Fi now has the potential to address low-latency and high-reliability applications better than ever before with Wi-Fi 6E, and will continue to play an important role for many industrial applications in the future, Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and 5G, in the future, will ultimately have the edge in ultra-low latency, mission-critical, and safety-critical applications, particularly in larger-scale campus networks that require greater mobility. This could include dynamic robots, intralogistics operations, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), and machinery control across a wide range of environments, including large industrial sites, mining operations, ports, airports, oil & gas, rail, utilities, and remote deployments, among others. However, Wi-Fi may play an increasingly important role in more static Industrial IoT (IIoT) deployments and other applications, such as broadband access, machine sensors, mixed reality, and video calling, among others.
  • Outdoors: For outdoor environments, cellular technologies, such as 5G, will be optimal. This will include uses like mobile broadband, FWA, and remote IoT connectivity, and is naturally where cellular technologies are in their element. Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are likely to intersect across a variety of smart city applications, with Wi-Fi for fixed assets, such as building management and Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV), and 5G for outdoor and mobility applications, ranging from traffic sensors and other smart city devices, to connected agriculture, and transportation applications.
  • Automotive: For automotive applications, 5G will be critical for Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) and autonomous vehicles, while in the infotainment space, vehicles must increasingly be able to support high-throughput and efficient Wi-Fi networking throughout the whole vehicle, enabling use cases such as ultra-High-Definition (HD) video streaming on multiple displays, wireless video mirroring, as well as backup cameras. Vehicles are increasingly being leveraged as Wi-Fi hotspots to support increasing amounts of users, ranging from 8 to 32 clients via a single vehicle hotspot. In addition, higher Wi-Fi throughput and MU-MIMO support are also desired to enable vehicles to act as client devices and connect to external APs for a variety of automotive services, including software updates, uploading of vehicle diagnostic data, data download, and automatic check-ins when arriving at dealerships and other areas. In the longer term, as vehicles become more autonomous, there is also a need for a more efficient method of transferring high-value, high-volume autonomous vehicle data. It is estimated that these vehicles will generate 1.2 Terabytes (TB) of data per day, meaning that vehicles will need to be able to transfer this over both cellular and Wi-Fi networks depending on where they are, and to do so in the most cost-effective manner.

Competition, Collaboration, or Convergence?


Increasingly, there is acknowledgement that both technologies will have a significant role to play within various environments. However, the question that remains is how will these two technologies intersect or converge in the future.

One area of particular interest for both Wi-Fi and 5G in the future will be industrial environments. Firstly, industrial environments are highly complex with a plethora of different requirements and use cases, and there is unlikely to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Some facilities may leverage 5G and private networks, others will leverage industrial Wi-Fi, and the majority are likely to have a combination of both technologies depending on the specific requirements. Wi-Fi is also leveraged extensively today in industrial environments. Over time, there will a strong incentive to upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 and 6E for better performance for smartphones, tablets, mobile computers, wearables, and Augmented Reality (AR)/Virtual Reality (VR) in the future, and there will still be a need to cater to the huge installed base of Wi-Fi devices. The cost of replacing all Wi-Fi-enabled devices with 5G in the coming years will be much too expensive and complex to justify. Wi-Fi also does not require additional costs for data or subscriptions, and the chipset cost for industrial devices is likely to be considerably cheaper. For manufacturing applications, some key features of 5G have also been delayed until later releases.

However, 5G is going to be extremely well suited for manufacturing applications, thanks to its high-mobility, high-throughput, low-latency, and massive connection capabilities, among other benefits. As far as industrial manufacturing is concerned, determinism and reliability are often the highest priority when selecting a networking technology for certain use cases. While Wi-Fi meets requirements through the implementation of proprietary protocols, 5G promises to bring end-to-end solutions that package all the industrial requirements, which will resolve a number of challenges for implementers, create scale for 5G solutions, and, consequently, lower the overall infrastructure cost. Much work needs to be done on the Wi-Fi side to help standardize these benefits for industrial environments going forward.

Industrial Wi-Fi will continue to play a key role for many applications; however, this will increasingly be complemented by 5G deployments to ensure reliable connectivity across large industrial campuses, be able to effectively address mobility requirements, and enable ultra-low latency mission-critical and safety applications, and large-scale IoT connectivity. While initial Wi-Fi 6 industrial trials are promising, and 6E, in particular, has been proven to provide multi-gigabit low-latency throughput, the Wi-Fi ecosystem must do much more here in self-promoting the capabilities of Wi-Fi technologies within industrial environments, as, to date, the market has emphasized what Wi-Fi cannot do, with limited promotion and acknowledgement of what Wi-Fi can or will be able to achieve in the future. Many of the transformational use cases for smart industry, including AI, robotics, AR and VR, and condition-based monitoring, among others, could be as equally suited to Wi-Fi connectivity as 5G, especially in indoor areas with much lower mobility requirements. There is, therefore, a strong need for more Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E trials and deployments in industrial environments.

It is clear that private 5G is going to have an enormous role to play in industry 4.0 solutions. Advantages of private 5G include dedicated coverage, exclusive capacity, intrinsic control, service customization, and extremely dependable communication. Companies like Ericsson have already done a number of tests and deployments for 5G within manufacturing environments. Just last week, the first private 5G network in the United Kingdom went live with BT. The new 5G installation in Worcester, in the West Midlands, will enable a variety of industrial use cases, including sensors, wearables, data analytics, robotics, and AR, among others.

However, various organizations are beginning to argue that 5G use cases are likely to require combined resources from both The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and Wi-Fi networks in order to provide the most effective coverage that is capable of meeting some of these diverse enterprise and industrial requirements. As both technologies are undoubtedly here to stay in these environments, there is a strong case for fostering interoperability and convergence to provide the most effective and highest-performing network depending on the application and use case. As discussed, industrial use cases and the technology selection will depend on specific throughput, latency, mobility, density, coverage, and reliability requirements. While mission-critical deployments may need 5G Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC), non-mission-critical use cases could leverage Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E now that the technology is much more capable of meeting IMT-2020 requirements than previous standards. There is a growing belief that smart manufacturing and other environments will leverage 5G and Wi-Fi to enable the most cost-effective way of delivering these varied use cases.

The Wireless Broadband Alliance recently published a whitepaper on Wi-Fi and cellular Radio Access Network (RAN) convergence, which highlights techniques that could enable convergence and identifies solutions to bridge technology gaps in order to realize the full benefits of both 5G and Wi-Fi technologies. The whitepaper argues that due to the varied requirements of the smart factory, the networking infrastructure will be vastly improved by leveraging both 5G and Wi-Fi, and that these technologies should be able to seamlessly interact with each other and access the 5G core network via both 5G or Wi-Fi radios. A key challenge facing the future of industrial connectivity is to be able to effectively deploy and manage both technologies to allow organizations to maximize the potential of each to bring about real improvements to a variety of production, logistics, and other industrial use cases, and to do so in the most cost-effective manner. Some numbers point to cellular 5G deployments being up to 10X less expensive when operators combine Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, and thanks to the new enhancements, such as OFDMA, meaning unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum will be used much more efficiently, this will allow for many more types of devices and 5G class services to be delivered with quality over Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. The potential combination of Wi-Fi and 5G using exactly same core could enable the efficient use of Wi-Fi where it needs to be, and 5G where it needs to be, providing more flexibility to address different scenarios more cheaply and efficiently.

It is clear that thanks to Wi-Fi’s continued evolution, the perception of Wi-Fi as being unreliable, low quality, and unable to deliver 5G-class services will dissipate over time as it migrates to Wi-Fi 6, 6E, and Wi-Fi 7. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E will deliver more deterministic, reliable, and secure performance than ever before, while continued improvements will help deliver high-throughput, low-latency services in line with 5G.

As a result, more efforts need to be made to understand the ways in which 5G and Wi-Fi can work together to offer the most cost-effective and best-performing solution for 5G service rollouts, particularly as the technology is often regarded as more cost effective across a variety of enterprise deployments. More discussion needs to be had around how these technologies can work together to deliver optimal connectivity in all situations, providing cost-effective, reliable, high QoS, and secure networks, and deliver transformative services and Return on Investment (ROI). Newly available 5G spectrum combined with dense Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7 deployments may be the most economical way to bring 5G-class services to the widest number of enterprises in the future.