5G or .11ax?

By Cees Links, GM of Qorvo Wireless Connectivity Business Unit

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In any case, it should now 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), and 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 definitely reducing. Interestingly 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 sounds too good to be true, IEEE 802.11ax turns out to be a very difficult standard, and its completion has just been delayed by another six months, with ratification now expected in early 2019.)

However, 5G is facing its own quite serious challenges, including delays. 5G’s higher data rates create a penalty on its range, too, 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 for higher data rates, 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 are planned for early 2018 around the Winter Olympics in Korea.

Conclusion

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” (including all the devices that can now be classified under this term) to the internet. So, 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.

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