Speed Wars: What’s The Difference Between 5G and Wi-Fi 6?

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Historically, Wi-Fi and cellular technology have been pitted against each other and as cellular network speeds increase to compete with the contemporaneous Wi-Fi technology, we hear a lot of bold claims about the death of Wi-Fi. It didn’t happen when 3G or 4G were rolled out, yet as 5G hits the headlines people are wondering once again – what about Wi-Fi?

It’s worth noting that the internet is prevalent in individual’s lives and homes as never before. As well as desktop computers and then, over the last two decades, the proliferation of mobile devices with internet connectivity, now the Internet of Things (IoT) is bringing connectivity into everyday appliances. As your television, fridge, thermostat and toaster become connected to the internet, the debate about Wi-Fi and 5G becomes more significant as soon every device in our household will be online.

As 5G hits the airwaves, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) begins to be rolled out with eyewater claims for speeds. In this article we’ll discuss the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and see whether one is likely to oust the other or whether they can coexist as Wi-Fi and cellular internet has always done in the past.

The Future Is Now, Kind Of

Despite both networks being the talk of the town, it could be a few years before you’re downloading 4K movies in the click of a finger on your mobile device. “Laptops and mobile devices are currently being built equipped with the technology to access these networks,” says Nelson Smith, tech blogger at Draft Beyond and Last Minute Writing, “but full global roll out of 5G is not expected for several years so 4G will remain the dominant technology.” 10th generation Intel CPUs are just some of the new crop of Wi-Fi 6 enabled laptops, and the Samsung S10 is a mobile device designed for Wi-Fi 6 usage. Yet these networks won’t become prevalent immediately.

Bold Claims

The biggest number attached to these two competing networks is their top speed and this is often what the media fixate on. It’s also the easiest facet of the networks for lay people to understand. As usual, both networks promise a step change in download speeds. 5G claims to offer network speeds of 4Gps which does indeed seem to make Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) with its top speeds of 3.5Gbps obsolete. Wi-Fi 6 however ups the ante offering a gobsmacking top speed of 9.6Gbps, dwarfing what 5G can offer.

However, when at the time of writing the fastest download speed offered in America is 72Mbps, despite current networks of Wi-Fi 5 and 4G offering many times this speed, the top speed of these networks seems somewhat obsolete. Wi-Fi 5 and 4G aren’t being put to their full potential as yet, so we can assume that the next generation networks will be similarly capped.

Licensed vs Unlicensed Networks

A significant difference between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 is how they operate on a licensed and unlicensed network respectively. Florida Finley, IT expert at Writinity and Researchpapersuk explains that “in order for telecom companies to offer the 5G network they are forced to bid for use of the spectrum and pay for [the] bandwidth used. This cost is then passed on to the customer.” Therefore users of 5G are going to have to subscribe to be able to use it, and especially at the outset, you can expect costs to be set quite high.

Unlike 5G, Wi-Fi 6 leverages an unlicensed network to provide connectivity. This unlicensed network is available free of charge. Consumers will pay a subscription fee to the internet service provider, and they’ll be required to purchase a router, but bandwidth won’t be such a hot commodity as with 5G. The downside of an unlicensed network is that it suffers from a limited reach. That’s why licensed networks work best for mobile devices, whilst Wi-Fi leverages unlicensed networks that limit connectivity in physical space.

Due to the difference between these network types, it’s unlikely that 5G will initiate a revolution in connectivity that will make Wi-Fi obsolete altogether. 5G will become the new standard for roaming and offer hitherto unseen download speeds for mobile devices in your pocket. However, the rise of the IoT will mean more connected devices in every home and Wi-Fi 6 will be dominant in this sector.

Not So Fast

So it seems like W-Fi is here to stay and the new paradigm of Wi-Fi found in Wi-Fi 6 will coexist with 5G networks. Laptops and smart devices such as TVs will remain reliant on Wi-Fi for their connectivity, whilst mobile devices will leverage 5G whilst roaming. 5G will also become dominant for fast-moving vehicles such as cars and trains, whilst Wi-Fi remains in the home. These two networks offer powerful download speeds and will boost both personal uses of the internet as well as supporting businesses to grow. For now, we need both 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

Ashley Halsey is a professional writer at Do My Assignment and Gum Essays. When she’s not writing about science and technology she escapes from the screens and likes to get her nose into a good book.