In the race to 5G WiFi might see some use cases to the winning post, claims WBA

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Sep 6, 2018

via Flickr © Christiaan008 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © Christiaan008 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • 802.11ax has a whole new set of capabilities
  • WBA even says that it can deliver 5G use cases at a much lower cost
  • And that it can hold its own as a standalone technology, providing new capabilities for the entire industry

The IEEE’s latest WiFi standard, 802.11ax, is being positioned as (amongst other things) a way to fast track 5G use cases, according to the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), which has just launched a white paper staking out its capabilities.

Essentially, the WBA argues for WiFi and 802.11ax (and whatever follows it) to play a big role in the new ‘open’ environment that 5G is supposed to usher in. If nothing else, WiFi connections will have an important capillary role, funneling data via ultra low-cost SoCs on all sorts of devices, into the 5G network.

There’s no doubt that WiFi has played a major supporting role for mobile broadband right back to the earliest smartphones. Estimates vary, but it’s thought that somewhere between a half and 80 per cent of data flowing to and from smartphones does so via WiFi (the WBA claims 70%) And it’s not only smarties; WiFi’s biggest claim to a place at the top table revolves around the increasing the number of devices which use it to connect, especially around the home. From cameras to television sets, to security devices and IoT gadgets. The report points out that there are currently 8 billion Wi-Fi devices in use, with 3 billion new Wi-Fi devices added over just the last year. Backwards compatibility, which has been maintained right through WiFi’s short history, is another big plus for the technology.

But one challenge to WiFi in this sphere is the 3GPP technologies’ move into the public spectrum bands - first with LTE (LAA) and soon with 5G. This theoretically means that LTE and  5G will be able to operate as private networks indoors, possibly with greater reliability and manageability than WiFi can or will be able to muster.

Pragmatic analysis, however, says that broadband access points will likely support multiple radio types inside the home, the business and the factory, and that this will maintain connectivity to existing WiFi gadgets as well as enabling more critical applications to jump onto 5G in the public bands once it becomes available.

But the WBA expects WiFi to go further than that. As well as that all-important backward compatibility to existing devices, it claims that 802.11ax will be able to perform 5G use cases in advance of 5G turning up.

“While WiFi can complement cellular access and expedite 5G time-to-market, the WBA has released its latest paper to demonstrate how deployment of 802.11ax can lead to early delivery of  some 5G use cases by several years and can deliver many of the market requirements as a standalone technology today – all backwardly compatible and able to meet the deployment requirements with a strong return on investment and time to market.” claims the publicity.

That sounds like a challenge, which is fine. But it’s worth remembering that one previous challenge from the IEEE - WiMAX, which was offered as a superior alternative to LTE  - resulted in the IEEE wiping egg off its face a few years later when WiMAX was comprehensively beaten.

This time around it might be different. Here are some of the features the WBA sees as strengthening 802.11ax’s abilities to meet those 5G use cases.

  • Multi-User MIMO Uplink & Downlink to increase channel capacity when servicing multiple, simultaneous devices, providing a significant capacity boost for enterprise and carrier networks, large public venues and multi-dwelling buildings.
  • Dual Band Frequencies supporting 2.4 GHz and 5GHz to expand spectrum usage possibilities, as well as New Frequency Ranges. This includes the extension of support to the 6GHz band, enabling new swathes of spectrum to be leveraged to deliver improved performance whilst maintaining support to all previous Wifi generations, creating access to wide market
  • Flexible Channel Sizes and Resource Units will allow operators to offer more efficient IoT support, such as connections that require lower data rates to use narrow dedicated channels to save power. This also means carriers are able to support both broadband based services as well as IoT over the same network.
  • The new Target Wake Time feature allows IoT devices to sleep to reduce access contention and wakeup in scheduled time slots thereby significantly improving device battery life.

“Investment in 802.11ax offers operators and enterprises a compelling proposition to dramatically accelerate the delivery of 5G use cases, at a much lower cost,” said Tiago Rodrigues, General Manager at the WBA. “However, it shouldn’t be viewed as ‘just the next evolution in Wi-Fi technology’ that can complement cellular. The WBA has developed this paper as part of its venture to raise awareness of 802.11ax as a standalone technology, providing new capabilities which can be used by the entire industry to address a whole new set of opportunities and use cases.”

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