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Future of wireless communications unifies 5G and Wi-Fi 6

The future of cellular, Wi-Fi and other wireless communication networks will see these technologies unify to support faster network speeds and real-time communications.

Although 5G and Wi-Fi 6 may seem like enemies battling to be the dominant wireless connectivity option, the future of wireless communication depends more on a balance between the technologies.

Cellular and Wi-Fi technologies have differed greatly in the past, but the future of wireless communication will likely see more cooperation than competition between the two, thanks to their shared goals for faster data rates and improved security. These technologies have changed significantly and rapidly since the advent of wireless communications, according to author Alan Bensky. Over time, communication networks will become more unified and integrate capabilities, Bensky said.

In the third edition of his book Short-range Wireless Communication, Bensky explores the essentials of wireless communications, such as wireless LANs and communication protocols, that wireless network engineers must know.

Editor's note: The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

How has wireless communication transformed in the last 20 years?

Alan Bensky: It's changed a lot. Twenty years ago, it was the start of the third generation [of cellular], and now, we're starting the fifth generation of cellular communication, 5G, with tremendous changes since then. Wi-Fi also [changed] in many aspects.

Short-range wireless communications book coverClick here to learn more
about this book.

The easiest way to consider it is the data rates that were possible 20 years ago over the two most popular means of wireless communication known to the public. Wi-Fi, at that time, was running on 11 Mbps, and today, it's hundreds of megabytes per second. Cellular communication, at that time, was around tens of megabytes per second, and now, it's also hundreds to over 1,000 Mbps.

At that time, most communications were voice communication. Today, multimedia is the big thing, with streaming video and teleconferencing and things that everybody -- even without technical [expertise] -- could realize in daily life.

What advancements are you looking forward to with Wi-Fi 6?

Alan BenskyAlan Bensky

Bensky: 802.11ax has quite a few innovations from 802.11ac. It's not a very large break, but it's significant incrementally. Things like the different types of modulation [and] different access methods break from 802.11ac. Modulation is being expanded to facilitate higher data rates. Also, the use of MIMO [multiple input, multiple output] for both uplink and downlink -- multiuser MIMO -- is another big innovation in Wi-Fi 6.

There are also differences in security and new types of security coming out. Changes are coming rapidly. In technical details, the use of OFDMA [orthogonal frequency-division multiple access], which is a multiple access scheme similar to [4G], is a break from the access scheme that came before. And the innovations in MIMO in the modulation mode are the most recent advancements. Also, in the future, there will be more sharing communications with the cellular networks.

Another innovation is expanded frequency range beyond the normal 2.5 and 5 GHz -- frequencies in 6 GHz, which 802.11ax will be able to fulfill.

What shortcomings do you expect Wi-Fi 6 to have?

Bensky: It's hard to say. Some people are concerned whether or not the wide variety of requirements and user types for [5G] may take away from 802.11ax. I don't think so. 802.11ax is keeping up, and I expect more cooperation between the two modes of communication, rather than competition between them.

As far as limitations, I don't see it. If anybody decides to go on 802.11ax, he's not going to give up anything. Although, there are much higher capabilities and innovations for reducing consumption -- for example, power saving and provisions for station-to-station operation instead of all communications [passing] through the access point. I think it can only be better, and like most other specifications and advancements, 802.11ax is backwards-compatible to previous amendments of 802.11.

Is 5G more beneficial for remote work than Wi-Fi 6, or are they equal?

Bensky: People won't have to make a strong decision for this. I think the two systems are going to work together. 5G will also go to shorter-range communication because it'll take advantage of much higher frequencies, which do not have long ranges, as cellular towers use higher frequencies -- millimeter wave -- which don't penetrate buildings.

There will be more handoffs of cellular conversations to Wi-Fi networks -- handing off to small cells inside buildings and offices, for example. But, in the near future, Wi-Fi will probably integrate with cellular networks before cellular communications take over from Wi-Fi.

What does the future of wireless communications look like?

Bensky: It seems to me things are going toward more unification of communication networks. Wi-Fi itself is defined for a particular type of communications environment, and it's not quite as flexible as cellular.

Also, there are 60 GHz communications, which is millimeter wave communications, and in this, somebody may say there's competition. I have a feeling things will go to an integration between the various types of communication systems.

Next Steps

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

5G for enterprises requires other tech to reap full benefits

Multimedia data and 5G drive network transformation

This was last published in July 2020

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