Wi-Fi and 5G redefine wireless

Convergence creates a pervasive connectivity fabric

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Do you remember back when you had to get online to check your email? Or when you could claim you could not be reached because you could not get connected? Connectivity used to be a deliberate choice, and often one that entailed an effort and a cost. Today, most of us (56% according to ITU) have a wireless broadband connection and are almost always effortlessly connected to a Wi-Fi or cellular network. Wireless connectivity has become the default access channel to communicate with each other. Yet, there is more to come. We are entering a world of pervasive connectivity in which the reach of wireless networks keeps expanding beyond our phones and laptops. New types of devices, terminals and sensors connect us to our environment, and change the way we interact with each other and the environment. Why hail a cab on a busy street when you can book it through your phone in less time and at a lower cost?

To complete the transition to pervasive connectivity that is already under way, all wireless networks have to continue to evolve to provide the coverage, capacity, latency, reliability, security, and cost efficiency that we need for new wireless use cases, and to meet the demand for massive connectivity to people and things, and to reach the remaining 46% of the world population that is not yet connected. From a technology perspective, it is a demanding task. But because of the increasing reliance of our society and economy on wireless connectivity, it is also a great responsibility. No single wireless access technology can support this transition on its own. Multiple technologies, each with its different strengths, have to work together to realize the IMT-2020 vision for pervasive connectivity.

Wi-Fi and 5G are by no means the only wireless technologies we need, but they are the most powerful ones in redefining wireless connectivity, because of their expected share of wireless traffic, their technological evolution, and their ability to support many of the existing and new use cases. Wi-Fi and cellular have jointly created the wireless fabric that supports broadband connectivity. Wi-Fi carries most of the traffic – cellular covers most of the land. Wi-Fi is best indoors – cellular is best outdoors. Wi-Fi started as a data technology – cellular was initially only about voice.

With 5G and Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax), this relationship between cellular and Wi-Fi will remain largely unchanged, but they will get closer to each other, as they expand their capabilities. Cellular and Wi-Fi will remain complementary in addressing different traffic demands and application requirements, and become more integrated to share the traffic between them more efficiently.

This paper overviews the evolution of Wi-Fi and how it addresses the new connectivity requirements driven by increased data volumes, latency-sensitive traffic, and IoT applications – and how it will meet the IMT-2020 vision together with 5G. With the introduction of new functionality and improved performance, Wi-Fi evolution continues unabated since the ratification of the IEEE 802.11 standard in 1997. The upcoming Wi-Fi 6 captures most of today’s attention with its increase in throughput, spectrum efficiency and device battery life, but the evolution of Wi-Fi covers more ground – including traffic management, security, new spectrum bands, and integration with cellular – to accommodate new use cases, especially for IoT applications, smart-city deployments, and latency-sensitive traffic.

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