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A deep dive into the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6

While the latest cellular and Wi-Fi technology generations -- 5G and Wi-Fi 6, respectively -- have been pitted against one another, the technologies make better friends than foes.

Both cellular and wireless LAN, or WLAN, have introduced new technology generations, and the time has come for the technologies to join forces rather than ignite a competition.

While several differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 exist, these differences are mostly standard differences between cellular and Wi-Fi technologies as a whole. In fact, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are so similar that experts suggest organizations shouldn't pit the two technologies against each other but instead discover ways for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 to work together.

In the Wi-Fi world, Wi-Fi 6 aims to stand out from past generations, bringing with it a new generational naming system, increased IoT capabilities and multiuser support. For cellular, 5G introduces superfast network speeds cellular technology hasn't seen before, as well as low latency and faster download speeds.

Defining 5G vs. Wi-Fi 6

5G. Fifth-generation wireless is the newest generation of cellular technology, with goals to dramatically increase network speeds and reliability. With 5G, users can gain real-time communication capabilities, and 5G could enable development of various new applications and features to support both users and businesses.

Wi-Fi 6. Wi-Fi 6 is the newest generation of WLAN technology and is also known as 802.11ax. Despite the Wi-Fi Alliance's new naming system, the move to Wi-Fi 6 is similar to the growth of its predecessors; Wi-Fi 6 builds upon former generations' capabilities but aims to enhance capacity and performance. Wi-Fi 6 also introduces new features, such as orthogonal frequency-division multiple access for multiuser support.

Shared goals of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 include increased bandwidth and network speeds, as well as low latency. Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 aim to improve upon their respective former generations and enhance UX. Yet, with all their similarities, the two technologies have key differences that make them complementary to each other and offer alternate connectivity options for organizations.

The key differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 include the following:

  • technology type
  • licensing
  • authentication
  • network security
  • use cases
5G vs. Wi-Fi 6
Various differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 exist, but the two technologies are incredibly similar and could be a powerful combination for organizations.

Comparing the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6

Technology type. Many of the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 stem from the difference between their technology types, which is the most notable distinction between 5G and Wi-Fi 6. While 5G is a cellular technology, Wi-Fi 6 is Wi-Fi, a version of WLAN technology. The technology types differ with licensing, authentication and use cases.

Licensing. Cellular technology is carrier-based, which is also true for 5G technology. This means operators exclusively operate cellular networks on licensed spectrum bands, which are meant to prevent interference. On the other hand, Wi-Fi operates in unlicensed bands that don't require permission to use.

However, 5G will break away from the cellular pack in this regard and operate in both licensed and unlicensed bands. This could create interference between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 signals near one another and will require extra planning in deployments to avoid interference.

Authentication. While Wi-Fi technology's unlicensed bands don't require permission to use, access to the Wi-Fi network itself does. To access a Wi-Fi network, users typically require a service set identifier -- or network name -- and password. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 introduces a new authentication type called Simultaneous Authentication of Equals for added protection against bad actors.

As for cellular access, this is simple and easy for users to gain, as cellular networks don't have the same authentication requirements as Wi-Fi networks. However, 5G also uses several authentication types, which include 5G authentication and key agreement, Extensible Authentication Protocol (EAP)-AKA and EAP-Transport Layer Security to bolster 5G network security.

Network security. Security has been a major 5G concern for experts, due to potentially high costs to ensure 5G network security, as well as increased vulnerability concerns. However, 5G will introduce several security concepts, including security anchor functions, subscription permanent identifiers and subscription concealed identifiers. These functions can enable seamless and secure device reauthentication as a device travels between networks, which former cellular generations couldn't guarantee.

Wi-Fi network security is historically easier to guarantee for devices than cellular networks, but Wi-Fi 6 aims to increase this still. Wi-Fi Protected Access 3 (WPA3) will support Wi-Fi 6 security, which, like 5G's security concepts, aims to bolster authentication security and encryption. Like 5G and Wi-Fi 6, WPA3 aims to improve upon the shortcomings of its predecessor, WPA2.

Use cases. Where and how organizations deploy cellular and Wi-Fi technology are other key differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6. Traditionally, Wi-Fi is better suited to indoor wireless coverage, and Wi-Fi 6 will maintain this. Other Wi-Fi 6 use cases include increased support for IoT devices and high-density wireless service for locations such as stadiums and sports venues.

As for cellular, 5G is better suited to outdoor use cases, such as autonomous vehicle support. In addition, 5G also aims to support mobile backhaul and fixed wireless access use cases. For organizations that turned toward 4G and LTE for backhaul use cases, 5G aims to improve that connectivity, as well as bring cellular into the fixed wireless space.

5G, Wi-Fi 6 as complements rather than competitors

Despite the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6, many experts tout potential benefits from a partnership between the two technologies. Businesses should focus more on how 5G and Wi-Fi 6 cooperate rather than which is better, according to Craig Mathias, principal with Farpoint Group. More importantly, users likely won't care which technology they use as long as their connection is good.

Interoperability between 5G and Wi-Fi networks could provide seamless connectivity for users as they move between networks. Business handsets may be able to support both technologies, Mathias predicted, although this level of cooperation is years away from reality.

Together, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can enable the success of network innovations, such as IoT growth and edge computing capabilities. Together, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can also better support remote workforces and bolster overall network connectivity with speed, reliability and flexibility.

This was last published in March 2020

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