May 11, 2021 | Written by: Maura McGowan

5G vs. Wi-Fi 6: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the New Wave of Technology

There are a lot of buzz words floating around the tech world, words like 5G and Wi-Fi 6. What do they actually mean? What are the differences? And why should you care?

5G is the newest cellular standard which replaces, or augments, 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) and 3G. It increases download speed, upload speed and reduces latency. The main difference between 4G LTE and 5G is the utilized spectrum.

For the most part, 4G LTE operates in sub 1GHz spectrum, we’ll just refer to this as low-band spectrum. Low-band spectrum is rapidly becoming oversaturated, because it provides a greater coverage area and can penetrate solid structures considerably better than higher frequencies. The only disadvantage is that lower frequency means less throughput, or data speed, around 100Mbps.

The next option is sub 6GHz spectrum, we’ll refer to this as mid-band spectrum. Mid-band spectrum provides faster data speeds (up to 1 Gbps) and reduces latency but cannot penetrate buildings as well as lower bands, due to radio frequency (RF) attenuation and a variety of other RF behavior characteristics.

If you keep increasing the frequency of the RF spectrum utilized, you will reach spectrum above 6GHz. For 5G, in the USA, this will be 27.5-28.35 GHz, 37-40 GHz, and 64-71 GHz. We’ll refer to this as high-band spectrum. It’s also known as mmWave due to the frequencies being so high that the actual wavelength can only be measured in millimeters; opposed to a typical 2.4GHz Wi-Fi wavelength, which is around 5 inches. High-band spectrum offers unprecedented speeds of up to 10 Gbps and extremely low latency. The major hindrance is an extremely low coverage area and little to no building penetration. Meaning the moment you walk into any building, your coverage will no longer work.

The carriers (Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile) will try to combat this by implementing small cells; base stations that will cover small geographic areas in order to still provide mmWave or high-band spectrum that is usable. Utilizing small cells and beamforming technology (beamforming sends focused signals to each user), the carriers hope to deliver what they promise 5G will be.

This poses the next question, what is Wi-Fi 6? Wi-Fi 6 is the newest IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standard, formally known as 802.11ax, which looks to improve on the preceding standards: 802.11ac, 802.11n, 802.11g, 802.11b, and 802.11a. 802.11ax is being branded as Wi-Fi 6 for obvious reasons.

Wi-Fi uses unlicensed RF spectrum. This differs drastically from cellular networks, which use licensed spectrum bands through the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), remember low-band, mid-band, and high-band. If it’s licensed, that means that only you can use it, and if others do, they get fined. If it’s unlicensed, anyone can use it. The benefit of unlicensed spectrum is that it’s free. However, the downfall is that it’s free, making it highly congested. Wi-Fi uses the 2.4GHz band and the 5GHz band. 2.4GHz is a lower frequency, meaning it can travel further distances but at reduced data speeds due to being limited to 20MHz channels. The 5GHz band has much more spectrum availability, therefore it can utilize channel bonding and use 40MHz or 80MHz channels which allows higher data speeds. Wi-Fi 6 will utilize a bunch of new technologies and protocols that will be 4x better in dense and congested environments, provide faster data speeds, increased network efficiency, and extend battery life of client devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

All of this new technology is great, in theory. In order to benefit from these new technologies, the networks need to be upgraded and so do client devices. Currently, smartphones, laptops, and other devices lack the antennas and chipsets that can support 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

So which is better? The answer is probably what can get you the best internet connection, anywhere, at any time, for the cheapest price. It will come down to the application. When you’re in your home, 5G won’t provide much of an improvement in performance due to medium to high-bands being utilized. As more and more IoT devices are being connected, Wi-Fi 6 will become more prevalent and develop more use cases. According to Wi-Fi NOW’s findings, more than half the world’s data is carried by Wi-Fi, and in Germany 87% of smartphone data is delivered via Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will coexist, and Wi-Fi will never away. Carriers will increase their subscription rates in order to recoup a return on their investment, due to having to pay for more licensed spectrum and the infrastructure to support all the small cells they’re rolling out. You may have noticed your cell phones uses 5G when outdoors in dense urban environments, but people in rural areas are continuing to use 3G and 4G connections. Wi-Fi 6 is used indoors, because 5G networks will not reach inside buildings unless small cell repeaters are installed. In the end, when it comes to 5G vs Wi-Fi 6, one is not better than the other, as they work together to provide end users the necessary and expected performance.