Pitting 5G against Wi-Fi 7: Which tech camp will win big on 6GHz spectrum assignments?

Illo by Amada44, CC BY-SA 4.0

Illo by Amada44, CC BY-SA 4.0

  • 5G advocates say their boy should win because the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has ordained that the technology requires it
  • The Wi-Fi industry says the cellular boys already have plenty and it’s their turn for a handout
  • Users don’t appear to have been asked

Intel says it intends to add Wi-Fi 7 hardware to laptops and other PCs by 2024, and a year later for the rest of the market. Other chipmakers, such as MediaTek, are also preparing and making promises about Wi-Fi 7 delivery – usually targeting 2024-25 for release and a year or so later for consumer availability.

As it sounds, Wi-Fi 7 is a big step up from Wi-Fi 6 and 6e (the current Wi-Fi standards), and it relies on the 6GHz band to achieve the expected exponential data speed increases that the Wi-Fi market expects and probably needs in the medium term (say, in this decade).

Wi-Fi 7 will boost a typical laptop computer up to a data rate of nearly 5.8Gbit/s downhill and with a tail wind. Real-world performance, of course, is likely to be much, much less as the signal fights its way through the atmosphere and is impeded by other user transmissions. But it’s more than double the throughput that is possible with the still relatively new kid on the block Wi-Fi 6, which can only clock about 2.4Git/s using the same spectrum band. 

Of course, all data standards tend to yield less in the real world than they promise in the fairytale world of the marketing blurb, including 5G.

The critical element for Wi-Fi 7 (and indeed Wi-Fi 6 and 6e) is access to the 6GHz spectrum. The more spectrum that is assigned to unlicensed use in various countries, the faster Wi-Fi 7 in particular will be able to perform in those countries, since it allows for vendors to add a variable number of channels to suit the spectrum available to them in different jurisdictions. 

The US bounded ahead with Wi-Fi when the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Ajit Pai, assigned the entire usable 6GHz band to Wi-Fi in 2020. That provided a huge boost for the technology (and technology vendors) in the region. Meanwhile, in much of Europe, the authorities are often still ruminating and waiting for a steer from the World Radiocommunication Conference 23 (WRC-23) to be held next year in the United Arab Emirates, before deciding on how to assign the new spectrum.

As reported in What’s up with… yesterday, the GSMA has reiterated the importance of the 6GHz band to 5G for the health of the cellular industry and this week released a report, Vision 2030: Insights for mid-band spectrum needs, in which it claims that 5G requires an average of 2GHz mid-band spectrum per country to deliver the ITU’s IMT-2020 (5G) requirements and realise the technology’s full potential. Reaching this figure is difficult without the 6GHz capacity, it claims. Difficult maybe, the Wi-Fi advocates might say, but not impossible. The Wi-Fi camp points out that it has been a long time since it’s been given substantial new spectrum to play with and it can point to plenty of examples of Wi-Fi now playing an important role – on some measures it shunts around more data than cellular. 

In effect, Pai’s move in breaking from the pack to promote Wi-Fi in 2020 might be enough to bounce the rest of the world to follow suit, especially when you consider the new devices and software being engineered to take advantage of a new super-fast Wi-Fi in the US. Will games enthusiasts (and others) outside the US be willing to sit all that out without a fuss?

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