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Wi-Fi – Fundamental to the evolution towards 5G

The study finds that by 2020 Wi-Fi networks around the world will need access to significantly more mid-band spectrum than is currently available in the 5 GHz range to satisfy expected growth in Wi-Fi data traffic, from applications such as the IoT and 4K streaming video. It suggests that between 500 MHz and 1 GHz of additional spectrum in various world regions may be needed to support expected growth in Wi-Fi by 2020.

More spectrum
Furthermore, if demand for Wi-Fi exceeds expected growth, it says, then between 1.3 GHz and 1.8 GHz more spectrum may be required by 2025. While that is an ‘Upper Bound’ scenario, at least 500 MHz and 1 GHz more spectrum will be required to satisfy the ‘Busy Hour’ scenario, which reflects the widely expected growth in traffic – a more likely scenario. Still, it’s clear that demand for Wi-Fi spectrum will not be met by today’s technology.

Users have come to rely on Wi-Fi as the primary means for internet access, in part because it is often their most affordable option and in part because Wi-Fi offers performance that is well suited for current and emerging applications. Enterprises, schools, hospitals, public spaces, smart cities and IoT applications are all likely to rely on Wi-Fi as the best connectivity option. Similarly, it’s now becomg strategically important to classical MNOs, who are increasingly exploiting VoWiFi as they roll out VoLTE.

“Every day users rely on Wi-Fi to make their lives better. People use Wi-Fi to connect with one another, to learn, to work, and even to manage a range of autonomous smart devices” said Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance. “The exponential increase in reliance on Wi-Fi warrants additional spectrum allocation to meet Wi-Fi users’ needs for years to come.”

In addition to simply needing more spectrum, the report suggests that it needs to have sufficient contiguity to allow wide channels of 160 MHz, and possibly wider, to be constructed with ease, or risk limiting the growth and economic benefits of Wi-Fi. This, it notes, presents a significant further challenge to those with responsibility for spectrum allocation.

The upcoming 802.11ax standard, which will offer 10Gbps in the 5-GHz bands (but unlike 802.11ac will also be deployable at 2.4 GHz, offers much promise to meet these demands), is the next great hope for meeting spectrum demands. It’s expected in products by 2018, even though the standard is not expected to be complete until early 2019.

Meanwhile, 802.11ay offers the promise of more than 20 Gbps, and possibly 100Gbps. Other activities underway include 802.11aq (Pre-Association Discovery) and 802.11az (Next-Generation Positioning), while 802.11az is expected to compete with Bluetooth LE-based beacons in indoor positioning applications.

With much industry focus on the opportunities, use-case scenarios, and challenges of moving from 4G to 5G, it’s perhaps important to remember that ‘old technologies’, such as Wi-Fi, will still have a major role to play in connecting, people, places, cities and IoT devices in the coming years. The question is, how will MNOs and others make the best use of the evolution of Wi-Fi capabilities alongside their investments in the evolution of 4G?