September 22, 2022

For years, Wi-Fi has been the go-to choice of internet users that demand faster, reliable and uninterruptible service with consistent bandwidth. Although cellular is a popular alternative to Wi-Fi with LTE+ services getting cheaper, it still cannot be counted as a Wi-Fi replacement due to issues like bandwidth inconsistency and higher latency. However, as per the latest report from OpenSignal, with arrival of 5G mmWave, this is no longer the case. This post uses data from OpenSignal’s analysis.

Users connected to public Wi-Fi, can experience average download speeds of 21 Mbps. Public Wi-Fi already has limited availability. 5G experience may differ depending on the frequency being used to offer the service. For example, the users connected to widely available sub-6 5G may experience average download speeds of 64 Mbps. The same users, when connected to 5G mmWave with compatible hardware can experience whooping average download speeds of 640 Mbps, 10 times as high as sub-6 5G and almost 30 times as high as public Wi-Fi.

Data from OpenSignal for average download speeds of wireless interfaces

Public Wi-Fi, in its nature has its own limitations, which can explain the slower speeds experienced by users. As Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum and unmanaged frequencies, its signal often suffers due to interference by competing signals. There are often multiple Wi-Fi networks in one place competing for non-abundant frequencies. Thus, public Wi-Fi is subject to interference, effectively slowing the network speed. On the other hand, 5G uses wireless spectrum that is licensed to only one carrier. Hence, there is no chance of interference. Standards like 5 GHz Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi 6 have been introduced solve this issue. However, their availability is very limited when it comes to public Wi-Fi. Since public Wi-Fi is often a free service, service providers may not have upgraded their access points. Public Wi-Fi is often a gateway to a wired broadband connection that might be using older technology (for example, ADSL) and is often not upgraded. Due to this, the network often has limited capacity and speeds suffer in case multiple users are connected. On the other hand, a 5G carrier uses a backhaul connection to a base station that is usually upgraded by the operator to ensure the best user experience.

Sub-6 and mmWave comparison (Image source: Qualcomm)

Though 5G mmWave offers promising high speeds and lowest possible latency, its current availability of is very limited. mmWaves aka Millimeter waves are extremely high frequencies and are subject to atmospheric attenuation, which significantly affects the coverage of a single 5G mmWave base station. The operator can overcome this limitation by installing multiple 5G mmWave base stations in public places to ensure seamless coverage. The number of 5G mmWave base stations to be installed is way more than that of sub-6 5G and 4G LTE base sations. These 5G mmWave base stations form small cells. The operator may deploy many of these at malls, cafes, restaurants, parks and so on. This makes makes a small cell of 5G mmWave very similar to a public Wi-Fi network and an mmWave base station similar to a Wi-Fi access point. Thus, unlike traditional cellular networks, 5G mmWave can be a perfect replacement to public Wi-Fi, whenever available.

However, Wi-Fi will still continue to play its role at home and work locations as it is free, cheap and often without any data cap. As almost all of existing devices support Wi-Fi or old cellular technologies and lack necessary 5G hardware, Wi-Fi and 5G mmWave will continue to complement each other for first few years. Slowly but steadily, users will get onboard 5G and use it as a preferred choice over the Wi-Fi. The operators can use this opportunity to offer significantly better connectivity to users in dense urban localities where Wi-Fi speeds suffer due to interference.

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