5G or .11ax: Who will win the battle?

April 24, 2018 Cees Links, Qorvo

While wireless data-communication technology and standards are still in development, new standards and proprietary technologies are clamoring for attention. How do we separate the noise from what is real and important? Should consumers care about any of this? Despite all the marketing chatter, it is relatively easy to look at the bigger picture and understand where things are going. And as it is often the case, it can be helpful to remind ourselves how we got to where we are today.

There is a lot of chatter these days about 5G and .11ax. Which will “win” the networking technology battle?

The standardization body for wireless phone communication today is 3GPP; for wireless computer data communication, it is IEEE 802.11. The roots of 3GPP are with the telephone operators and their governmental sponsors, since operators were originally governmental bodies. The IEEE 802.11 is rooted in the computer industry.

In addition to academics and regulators, IEEE 802.11 has a large engineer membership, most of whom are sponsored by their employer companies. These companies then needed to enforce compliance to the IEEE 802.11 standard definitions (the IEEE 802.11 itself does not regulate compliance). So, the Wi-Fi Alliance was founded for enforcing and promoting the IEEE 802.11 standard under the Wi-Fi brand – without exaggeration, one of the most valuable brands today.

3GPP, on the other hand, never really focused on a cohesive brand strategy aimed at consumers. This makes sense because 3GPP was the interest group of operators, who always had a certain control of the market. They never had to win the hearts and minds of the consumers like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth did. So instead of bothering with brand consistency issues, whole sets of ever-improving standards migrated from GSM/GPRS to 3G, Edge, 4G, LTE, and now 5G.

Battle lines were drawn early

When Wi-Fi was emerging in the late 1990s, the general tendency in 3GPP land was to ask, "Why do you need Wi-Fi?" At that time, the standardization of 3G was progressing well and promising high data rates, and 3G modems connected to or integrated in laptops would provide ubiquitous connectivity. So, why bother with Wi-Fi? The general opinion was that this “unlicensed technology” would disappear, probably sooner than later, because in the unlicensed bands, the lack of oversight would bring the performance spiraling down quickly.

We know today that things turned out rather differently. Wi-Fi has found a way to properly operate in the unlicensed ISM-bands and satisfy the needs for wireless connectivity indoor, in-home or in-building, where 3G was not able to penetrate well. Also, Wi-Fi rapidly increased its data rate and expanded its capabilities by moving from the 2.4 GHz band into the 5 GHz band, and it is expected to further extend these by going into the 60 GHz band. Range extender technologies and, more recently, the concept of distributed Wi-Fi (“Wi-Fi Mesh”), have also supported Wi-Fi’s success to date.

Looking ahead

Armed with this understanding of history, we can turn to the new looming battle. The IEEE 802.11 has been working diligently on higher-speed versions –.11n and .11ac – and it is in the process of completing .11ax. At the same time, the 3GPP is moving on from 4G/LTE and is investing heavily in 5G.

It should not come as a surprise that the talk is (again) about which technology is going to win: 5G or IEEE 802.11ax? Both will be in the high data rates (Gb/s), both will be quite power intensive to get good range, and both are trying to infringe on each other’s territory. 5G is claiming that it will have “way better indoor penetration”, and .11ax is throwing out the slogan, “5G has arrived and it is called .11ax.”

IEEE 802.11ax has a clear path worked out, although with the increased data rate, the range is reducing. Wi-Fi has turned this disadvantage into an advantage by focusing this new IEEE 802.11ax standard on distributed Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi Mesh) and enabling the usage of multiple channels at the same time to connect multiple access points in different rooms to the main router. The focus of IEEE 802.11ax is on full indoor coverage – every nook and cranny in your house or office building covered with the same high data rate, creating an experience that will not be easily replaceable with 5G. Lest this sound too good to be true, IEEE 802.11ax turns out to be a very difficult standard, and its completion has just been delayed another six months, with ratification now expected in early 2019.

However, 5G is also facing its own quite serious challenges and delays. 5G’s higher data rates create a penalty on its range, and for cellular base stations, coverage goes “by the square.” The expectation is that the range for 5G will probably decrease by less than half, forcing the number of base stations to more than quadruple. In dense urban areas, where finding real estate to place base stations is expensive, this will mean that rolling out 5G infrastructure will be at significant expense, at the same time, that many operators are still recovering from their 4G investments.

Though it varies a bit by country and the financial structure of the telephone operators, the belief is that higher data rates will be needed to sustain the consumer and business appetites, particularly in dense population settings, where the usage of licensed spectrum can be better controlled than unlicensed. So the money flowing into further developing and maturing 5G is continuing, and the first trials now have been completed during the Winter Olympics in Korea.

So, who is going to win the battle? Honestly, there shouldn’t even be a battle. Both 5G and Wi-Fi have very particular characteristics that will be beneficial for connecting computers to the Internet. The operator that best can exploit both technologies to its advantage and can define and execute a strategy that leverages them both will become the winner. Seen from this perspective, the ultimate winner of these technology battles will be the end-user.

Cees Links is GM of Qorvo's Wireless Connectivity Business Unit.

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