5G vs. Wi-Fi: How They’re Different and Why You’ll Need Both

The 5G era is here, and while it hasn’t necessarily brought about the mobile revolution some expected, it could well do so in the next few years. Current 5G tech delivers minimal improvements to download speeds, but eventually it should dramatically improve download speeds, nearly eliminate latency, and reduce congestion on mobile networks.

In other words, 5G is going to give Wi-Fi a run for its money.

While Wi-Fi and 5G will be pitted against each other, all signs point to us likely needing both technologies to fully take advantage of the internet of tomorrow. While 5G will undoubtedly come in handy in many situations, Wi-Fi, which is still being developed and updated, will be useful in other situations. And they could end up working together, such as in the case of 5G home internet.

What’s the difference between 5G and Wi-Fi?

We have a detailed explanation of what 5G is, but in brief, 5G is the umbrella term for the fifth generation of mobile network technology, and it encompasses a lot of different elements. Cellular or mobile networks rely on licensed spectrum bands, which are auctioned off to the highest bidder. Carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, have to pay to use those bands. To roll out coverage, they have to build a network of connected base stations capable of sending out a signal that’s strong enough for the network to serve multiple people (thousands in urban areas) at once. To recoup their investment, they rely on us paying subscriptions.

Coaxifi router

Wi-Fi relies on unlicensed spectrum that’s free for anyone to use but has a relatively weak signal. We pay an internet service provider (ISP) to deliver the internet to our door, and then we use a router to fill our house with Wi-Fi. Using the same frequency band as your neighbors can be a problem, especially if you live in a very densely populated area. The two frequencies that Wi-Fi uses are 2.4GHz and 5GHz. In simple terms, 2.4GHz has a lower potential top speed but penetrates better, so it has a longer range than 5GHz, which, on the other hand, can deliver faster speeds but doesn’t penetrate things like walls as easily.

It’s worth noting that 5GHz Wi-Fi has absolutely nothing to do with 5G mobile networks.

In everyday life, most of us rely on Wi-Fi at home or in the office — or in coffee shops — and mobile networks when we step out the front door and move out of range of the router. Our phones switch automatically and we don’t give it any thought; the important thing is simply having a good connection at all times. That scenario will continue to be the case for the vast majority of people as 5G continues to roll out. The difference is that both mobile networks and Wi-Fi are going to see performance improve.

The promise of 5G

The prospect of download speeds between 1Gbps and 10Gbps and upload speed, or latency, of just 1 millisecond (ms) has people excited about 5G. Those speeds are comparable to what you’d see from a physical Ethernet connection. However, the reality is we won’t typically get anywhere near the theoretical top speeds. And even if we did, it wouldn’t be for at least a few more years.

The actual speed of your 5G connection will depend on many factors, including where you are, what network you’re connecting to, how many other people are connecting, and what device you’re using. The aim is to achieve a minimum download speed of 50Mbps and a latency of 10ms. That will represent a major improvement over current average speeds, but just as with 4G LTE, 5G coverage is going to expand slowly. Currently, we’re at an average download speed of around 57Mbps, according to a study from Speedcheck. That means that the minimum is far less than that.

It’s also going to work hand-in-hand with not just Wi-Fi but also earlier generations of mobile network technology, so 4G LTE will continue to be offered as a fallback and will likely keep evolving and getting faster.

The promise of Wi-Fi 6

Benefits of wi-fi 6 (802. 11ax)

Wi-Fi has traditionally been very confusing in terms of the naming conventions for standards. It went from 802.11b to 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, and then 802.11ac.

The Wi-Fi Alliance (and the industry at large) has accepted the need for something less perplexing, so the next standard, 802.11ax, is marketed as Wi-Fi 6. This simpler naming convention is also being applied retroactively, so 802.11ac will become Wi-Fi 5, and so on. The new Wi-Fi 6 standard offers speeds at least four times faster than Wi-Fi 5 in certain conditions, but it also brings improvements in efficiency and capacity designed to cope with the growing number of internet-connected devices in the average home. Just like 5G, Wi-Fi 6 will complement, not replace, existing Wi-Fi standards, especially considering the fact that actual devices will need to add support for newer versions of Wi-Fi too. Theoretically, maximum Wi-Fi 6 speeds top out at around 9.6Gbps, but you’ll likely never hit that in real-world use.

What do you need to enjoy 5G or Wi-Fi 6?

5g vs. Wi-fi: how they're different and why you'll need both
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

At this point in time, both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are pretty widely available. On the 5G side, carriers have now rolled out nationwide 5G networks built on Sub-6 spectrum — and they’re set to continue expanding that network and adding midband and high-band spectrum to complement it.

To get access to Wi-Fi 6, you’ll need a router that supports the standard, and you’ll need devices that support it too. Most newer smartphones support both 5G and Wi-Fi 6, especially when it comes to higher-end devices. Eventually, all phones, computers, and so on will support both standards.

The future of internet connectivity

As more and more routers have Wi-Fi 6 built into them, and more and more cell towers beam out 5G networks, our internet speeds, both at home and on the go, will get faster, with lower latency. More technologies will spring up too. As 4G enabled advances like online mobile gaming and mobile streaming, 5G will enable a range of new use cases, like connected cars.

Of course, only time will tell what the future really holds for internet connectivity, but expect to be hearing the terms “5G” and “Wi-Fi 6” a whole lot more in the next few years.

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