What are the differences between Wi-Fi vs. 5G? 5G and Wi-Fi are both network options that provide high speeds, low latency, and large user capacities.
To understand the differences between Wi-Fi vs. 5G, we’ll quickly go over how Wi-Fi and 5G works.
A brief summary on how Wi-Fi works
Wi-Fi is a wireless communication technology that uses unlicensed radio frequency spectrums, typically in homes and offices.
Wi-Fi itself is the wireless form of an internet connection. As a simple explanation, an internet connection enters a premises through a hard-wired connection (either a copper coaxial or a fiber-optic line) and connects to a modem, ONT (Optical Network Terminal), or controller—depending on the hard-wired connection.
The internet signal is transmitted from the modem to a router or controller and converted to a wireless signal. That signal is then transmitted to other wireless access points that broadcast that transmission to user devices throughout the premises. The router/controller and access points will also receive network traffic wirelessly from connected devices and route it back over the wired connection. Internet service is provided by an internet service provider (ISP) and hardware such as routers and modems.
Wi-Fi, like any other technology, has evolved over time. The current iteration, Wi-Fi 6 (or Wi-Fi 6e for the expanded version), more technically known as Wi-Fi 802.11ax, is a new form of the Wi-Fi protocol that supports stronger Wi-Fi connections with more throughput and less interference. This standard can reach max speeds of 9.6 Gbps.
What is 5G and how does it work?
5G is a designation for the fifth generation of mobile and wireless network communications, utilizing decentralized connectivity potential across various devices. 5G will predominantly serve mobile phones, tablets, and IoT devices.
The “G” in 5G refers to the “generation” of mobile network capability.
What are all the generations of cellular and mobile connectivity?
- 1G (Analog Voice): The earliest stage in mobile development, 1G supported the first wireless telephones. Before digital wireless communications, 1G used technology that had been in development since the early 1980s.
- 2G (Digital Voice): The second generation moved from analog cellular technology to digital. There are several advantages that came with the digital upgrade. First, it was possible to encrypt digital data, even voice calls. Second, data services became possible, signaling the rise of Short Message Service (SMS) texting and multimedia communications (such as pictures in texts). Finally, the efficiency of 2G communications led to an exponential growth in cell phone adoption.
- 3G (Mobile Data and Text): 3G marked a vast improvement in performance and capabilities in digital cellular communications. 3G provides transfer rates of at least 144 Kbps and allows access to limited mobile broadband (wireless access to the internet via hotspots or tethered mobile devices). In this generation, users began to see the increased use of video calling, file sharing, mobile gaming, and video streaming.
- 4G and 4G LTE (Mobile Broadband): 4G provided improved network performance, with connections reaching 100 Mbps. This provided the speed needed for streaming high-definition video, voice over internet protocol phone calls, and advanced online gaming. Additionally, 4G saw the rise of mobile networks that could support the high-end demands from devices such as laptops and tablets. Many of these devices came with the option of connecting to 4G cellular networks.
As the next generation of mobile networks, 5G gives users max speeds between 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps for downloads, revolutionizing mobile computing and media streaming. 5G will also boast lower latency than previous mobile protocols, which will open up several options for professional-level gaming that was previously reserved for dedicated fiber internet lines.
How do Wi-Fi and 5G compare?
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G mobile communication bring different strengths and limitations to the table.
Compared to one another, both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technology can meet gigabit speeds with low latency suitable for gaming and other applications (interactive video chats, high-performance computing, etc.).
There are a few key places where they differ:
- Flexibility, Capacity, and Scalability: Wi-Fi is generally easier to deploy. Once an internet connection is made to a given premise by an internet service provider, then scaling that installation for full Wi-Fi coverage is a matter of strategically installing wireless routers, access points, etc. Wi-Fi can also support large organizations that need to connect many users in relative proximity.
On the other hand, 5G offers plenty of flexibility. Once the infrastructure is in place, 5G can support a massive range of distributed users and applications across various devices. Furthermore, 5G can keep a more stable level of performance even when a large number of users are connected at once.
- Device Adoption: For the most part, consumer computers (laptops, desktops, etc.) haven’t adopted the additional hardware needed to provide 5G connectivity. While these devices will almost invariably have support for Wi-Fi connections, the added support for 5G and associated hardware (like SIM cards) just isn’t there. This means that switching computers in and out of use isn’t possible on 5G, nor is supporting users and bring-your-own-device situations. Wi-Fi, however, will remain backwards compatible with associated bands (2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, for example).
- Privacy, Security, and Compliance: While security standards can overlap between the two technologies, Wi-Fi networks authenticate user access while 5G authenticates device access. Both can be configured to meet compliance and security standards. Some experts differ on which one is “more secure.” 5G’s approach to network segmentation and device authorization are seen as big advantages, but the updates to the Wi-Fi 6 standards have been on par with those of 5G.
- Speed and Latency: Wi-Fi typically excels over mobile networks in speed and latency. Nevertheless, 5G is comparable to Wi-Fi 6 in terms of overall speed. Specifically, the latency (or the time between user actions and web response) in 5G is comparable to that of Wi-Fi — a critical move towards supporting mobile gaming.
- Resilience: One of the strengths touted by 5G proponents is its ability to divide mobile bandwidth into “slices” (ie. virtual segments isolated from one another). This, alongside the decentralized nature of 5G, has led many to see 5G as a resilient network solution. This is especially important for IoT networks where 5G is most likely to be deployed.
However, 5G networks are still vulnerable to downtime and disaster issues, and some experts claim that power consumption under 5G infrastructure could actually increase over time. This can limit how reliable and sustainable 5G networks are in the long run.
- Costs: While it is difficult to understand accurate numbers related to costs for new technological infrastructure, the consensus now is that Wi-Fi remains much less expensive to implement than 5G. 5G, while excellent for outdoor communications, struggles to penetrate common building materials or sustain reception at high altitudes, calling for additional, expensive equipment. The equipment needed to outfit a Wi-Fi network covering an office, warehouse, or IoT system is less expensive than the infrastructure needed for 5G coverage.
Is Wi-Fi or 5G best for your business?
In reality, most businesses will eventually leverage a mix of 5G and Wi-Fi technologies, including local area networks (LAN) and wide area networks (WAN) built with secure and compliant Wi-Fi 6 technology, 5G mobile networks that work with secure Wi-Fi resources, and 5G-enabled IoT devices connected to cloud platforms running on top of Wi-Fi and fiber internet connections.
Today, we still recommend Wi-Fi local networks over 5G for most enterprises with commercial spaces based on the differences noted above. Wi-Fi is flexible, reliable, and cost-effective, in addition, it can provide the security and customization needed to meet dozens of different applications.
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