Can mmWave 5G replace Wi-Fi? OpenSignal’s report says so.

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.

What’s New in 5G Phase 2/3GPP Release 16? (Part-2)

Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB)

Release 16 will be providing support for this new technology developed by Qualcomm. Backhaul is a portion of the cellular network that comprises the intermediate links between the cell towers and telco’s core network. Traditionally, these backhaul connections have been using methods such as microwaves, fibre and other cable connections. Since, a typical 5G network will consist of numerous antennas in form of ‘small cells’ to ensure the best performance over millimetre waves, it would be impractical and very expensive to use these traditional types of connections for backhaul. With IAB, telcos can use the same millimetre waves to communicate to user equipment as well as other reception points within the cell. Single equipment will be used for cellular as well as backhaul access, hence saving a huge amount of expenses which would be otherwise spent on traditional backhaul methods.

Cellular V2X and Sidelink

Release 16 has been focusing on enhancing the safety of autonomous driving. Sidelink enables support for sensor data sharing and coordinated driving. Sensor data from one car can be shared with another car within proximity for assisted driving. There are also many other enhancements that improve the efficiency of autonomous driving and reduce the effective power consumption when it comes to sending cellular signals to network as well as other connected vehicles.

Time Sensitive Networking (TSN)

Being another important addition to 5G standard, Time Sensitive Networking technology ensures the level of precision in environments where the same timing and low latency are critical. The use cases are advanced IoT environments like a factory or remotely operating mechanical systems. Presently, wired ethernet connections are the only way to ensure these precision demands. However, TSN will be able to meet these demands over a 5G wireless connection and ensure everything in these environments stays in sync.

Satellite Access with 5G (SatCom)

This is one of the interesting introductions in Release-16. Although more is expected in Release-17 when it comes to SatCom, it allows the extension of 5G network coverage by using satellite link. This will integrate cruise ships, airplanes and submarines with a 5G network. The satellite will provide a transparent link between UE and 5G base station (gNodeB). More on SatCom in an upcoming post!

Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) Phase 2

5G FRMCS is eventually going to replace GSM-R, a 2G standard currently being used for train radio communication. 3GPP Release 16 has standardized certain services for FRMCS such as Mission Critical Push To Talk (MCPTT), Mission Critical Voice and Video, Mission Critical Data and Mission Critical Common Requirements (MCCoRe). To read more on FRMCS from Towards5G, click here.

Release 16 standards have paved way for operators to kick off their 5G SA deployments. 5G is more of an enabler for digital transformation of the globe and catalyst for Industry 4.0. However, the story doesn’t end here! 3GPP Release 17 is already in progress and expected in late 2021.

What’s New in 5G Phase 2/3GPP Release 16? (Part-1)

Previously delayed by three months due to ongoing COVID situation, the long-awaited Release-16 from the global wireless standards body 3GPP has finally been frozen. Often dubbed as 5G Phase 2, it is a new set of specifications for 5G NR technology. While the initial 5G Phase 1 (3GPP Release 15) laid the foundation to kickstart initial 5G deployments, its main focus was to deliver high speeds with enhanced mobile broadband. Almost all of the existing 5G networks from 2019 and 2020 are in non-standalone (NSA) mode, using their 4G core (EPC) behind the scenes. The entire focus of the new release is on standalone (SA) 5G with upgraded RAN capabilities and enabling other aspects of 5G like URLLC, massive IoT and unlicensed spectrum access. This set of standards includes enhancements that improve the battery life and performance of 5G devices and networks. For vendors, telcos and device makers, this release is something significant to look forward to for the next 12-18 months.

Enhancements to 5G Air Interface and the Device Battery Life

One of the key enhancements to 5G standard in Release 16 is the support for a technique called MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output). This enhancement will enable it to work with multiple transmission and reception points simultaneously with increased power levels and efficiency. This will result in faster speeds and reliable performance even at last mile of the cellular network. Release 16 also includes some power saving mechanisms from Qualcomm. It incorporates new signals that notify devices to temporarily put their modems in low power mode. Another Wake Up Signal (WUS) notifies the device to put the modem back to the full power mode and back to the low power mode when the reception is complete.

5G Based Positioning

One interesting enhancement in Release 16 is being able to find the position of a 5G-equipped device without relying on the GPS. The detection range will be 3-meter indoors and 10-meter outdoors. Instead of GPS, the devices will use reference signaling for positioning. The device’s position will be calculated relative to the position of the cell tower. This will bring significant improvements to indoor positioning applications (e. g. indoor maps in shopping malls) when it comes to precisely locating the user.

NR-U – Unlicensed Spectrum for Private 5G

New standards from Release 16 enable non-telco organizations (e. g. universities, farms) to deploy their private 5G networks inside their operating premises. This 5G capability is referred to as NPN (Non-Public Network) using NR-U (New Radio-Unlicensed) as standard. This private 5G network can leverage all the smart features of 5G along with its high-speed and low-latency and has the potential to be a replacement for the traditional Wi-Fi networks.

In the next post, we will discuss about some more enhancements like V2X, Industrial IoT, Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB), Satellite Access and FRMCS Phase 2. Stay tuned!