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5G vs. Wi-Fi: Verizon says cellular will win

In the not-too-distant future, businesses could find themselves weighing 5G vs. Wi-Fi in the campus and office. Verizon has already named 5G the winner.

Verizon's long-term strategy is to make mobile 5G a Wi-Fi killer. While analysts don't see that happening this decade, it is technically possible for the next-generation wireless technology to drive Wi-Fi into obsolescence.

Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon Consumer Group, recently entered the ongoing 5G vs. Wi-Fi tech debate when he predicted the latter's demise. Dunne said his company's upcoming 5G service would eventually make high-speed internet connectivity ubiquitous for its customers.

"In the world of 5G millimeter wave deployment, we don't see the need for Wi-Fi in the future," Dunne told attendees at a Citigroup global technology conference in Las Vegas.

Today, the millimeter wave (MM wave) spectrum used to transmit 5G signals is often blocked by physical objects like buildings and trees, making service unreliable. Verizon believes its engineers can circumvent those limitations within 5 to 7 years, bringing 5G wireless broadband to its 150 million customers.

Ronan Dunne, executive vice president & CEO of Verizon Consumer GroupRonan Dunne

Most analysts agree that Wi-Fi will remain the preferred technology for indoor wireless networking through the current decade. Beyond that, it's technically possible for 5G services to start eroding Wi-Fi's market dominance, particularly as the number of 5G mobile and IoT devices rises over the next several years.

"If the CEO of a major cellular carrier says something, I will take that seriously," said Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group. "He could be dead wrong over the long run, but, technically, it could work."

As an alternative to Wi-Fi, Verizon could offer small mobile base stations, such as specially designed picocells and femtocells, to carry 5G signals from the office and home to the carrier's small cell base stations placed on buildings, lampposts or poles. The small cells would send traffic to the carriers' core network.

Early uses for 5G

Initially, 5G could become a better option for specific uses. Examples include sports stadiums that have an atypically high number of mobile devices accessing the internet at the same time. That type of situation requires a massive expenditure in Wi-Fi gear and software that could prove more expensive than 5G technology, said Brandon Butler, an analyst at IDC.

Another better-than-Wi-Fi use for 5G would be in a manufacturing facility. Those locations often have machinery that needs an ultra-low latency connection in an area where a radio signal is up against considerable interference, Butler said.

Nevertheless, Butler stops short of predicting a 5G-only world, advising enterprises to plan for a hybrid world instead. They should look to Wi-Fi and 5G as the best indoor and outdoor technology, respectively.

"The real takeaway point here is that enterprises should plan for a hybrid world into the future," Butler said.

Ultimately, how far 5G goes in replacing Wi-Fi will depend on whether the expense of switching is justified by reducing overall costs and receiving unique services. To displace Wi-Fi, 5G will have to do much more than match its speed.

"It'll come down to cost and economics, and the cost and economics do not work when the performance is similar," said Rajesh Ghai, an analyst at IDC.

Today, Wi-Fi provides a relatively easy upgrade path. That's because, collectively, businesses have already spent billions of dollars over the years on Wi-Fi access points, routers, security and management tools. They have also hired the IT staff to operate the system.

Verizon 5G Home

While stressing the importance of mobile 5G vs. Wi-Fi, Dunne lowered expectations for the fixed wireless 5G service for the home that the carrier launched in 2018. Verizon expected it's 5G Home service to eventually compete with the TV and internet services provided by cable companies.

Today, 5G Home, which is available in parts of five metropolitan markets, has taken a backseat to Verizon's mobile 5G buildout. "It's very much a mobility strategy with a secondary product of home," Dunne said.

Ghai of IDC was not surprised that Verizon would lower expectations for 5G Home. Delivering the service nationwide would have required spending vast amounts of money to blanket neighborhoods with small cells.

Verizon likely didn't see enough interest for 5G Home among consumers to justify the cost, Ghai said. "It probably hasn't lived up to the promise."

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