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24 May 2022

Convergence looks attractive as OpenSignal identifies 5G gains over WiFi

The leap in performance of 5G has led to gamers and users of more demanding applications increasingly opting for cellular rather than WiFi connectivity, reversing the normal pattern in the 4G era.

While hard data about this trend is still elusive, the latest survey from London-based mobile analytics firm Opensignal indicates that users are now becoming well aware that 5G, where available, is now often significantly better than public WiFi for both throughput and latency, the two critical parameters for gaming in particular.

While earlier surveys had already confirmed that 5G running in millimeter wave spectrum was well ahead of WiFi data rates, even when the latter’s latest 6E version was deployed, the new Opensignal data is notable in finding that the gains are now showing up in midband, sub-6 GHz spectrum such as 3.5 GHz. Furthermore, mmWave services, admittedly only available to a small minority of users, are now rated well above even home or office WiFi, where contention is usually not an issue. Even midband 5G was not far behind this private WiFi category, including home and office, and catching up.

Opensignal measured the experience real time multiplayer gaming users were getting in the three months from December 2021 to February 2022, and in five categories – mmWave 5G, midband 5G, 4G, public WiFi in places such as cafes, hotels, stations and stores, and other WiFi in homes and office chiefly. The experience was measured on a scale of zero to 100, with mmWave coming top on 81.8 average, pushing private WiFi into second on 76.3, with midband 5G closing in on 74.5. Public WiFi was fourth on 72.0, leaving 4G trailing on 68.5.

This reveals the coming of age of cellular for gaming with 5G, and also the challenge faced by public WiFi where contention for access is clogging up bandwidth. This implies that users need the latest 6E version which expands beyond the two 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz into bands around 6GHz for extra capacity.

At any rate, Opensignal concluded that not just mmWave, but now midband 5G too, was making cellular competitive with WiFi for demanding mobile experiences like gaming.

“Opensignal’s latest analysis demonstrates that smartphone users now have superior average download speeds using 5G than on WiFi connections in the US,” said Ian Fogg, leader of the analysis team. “Already, users see a better multiplayer mobile gaming experience and faster average download speeds with 5G than with public WiFi. The main limitation for 5G now is the reach of 5G services but this is changing. As a result, users must no longer assume cellular is worse than WiFi, and should try 5G if their WiFi connectivity is poor.”

Opensignal also examined the actual average download speeds achieved, which had actually slowed down a little in mmWave bands, compared to those noted in the firm’s earlier survey – from 640.5Mbps to 571Mbps. That may just reflect rising contention and traffic levels but is still over five times the 112.9Mbps achieved by midband 5G, followed by private WiFi on 89.6Mbps, 4G on 32.5Mbps and then public WiFi on 23.3Mbps. The main change here was midband 5G overtaking even home-based WiFi.

We should note that the WiFi users included in the survey were using a mixture of versions, with only some on the latest 6 or 6E. “All types of WiFi access point were included,” said an Opensignal spokesperson. “Inevitably, this means that most of the devices will not yet be capable of connecting on the 6 GHz band used for WiFi 6E. However, this also represents the real world situation because many WiFi devices, for example notebook PCs, and the APs themselves, have far longer replacement cycles than do cellular devices such as smartphones, and so newer standards take longer to become a major part of the WiFi installed base compared to how quickly new cellular standards roll out.”

In any case, this is not the whole picture and WiFi stands up much better for upload speeds, which are increasingly important not just for gaming, but general Internet connectivity given the growing incidence, for example, of video uploads to social media sites. Opensignal found that while mmWave 5G achieved the fastest uploads at an average 30.5Mbps, both public WiFi at 19.5Mbps and private WiFi at 19Mbps came in above midband 5G at 15.6Mbps, while 4G languished well behind at 7.9Mbps.

However, for gaming as opposed to video, the actual upload speed is not so important and 1Mbps is considered adequate because the requirement is just to relay instructions. What does matter absolutely for gaming is latency, and that was not recorded specifically in this survey, although Opensignal took it into account alongside jitter, packet loss and bit-rate as part of that overall gaming experience.

It is in latency that 5G achieves the biggest potential gains over both 4G and also WiFi, even in the latest 6E version, by reducing that as far as possible to the bare bones of signal transmission time over both the core and radio networks. The much-quoted target of 1ms latency depends on short signal distance and is one reason edge compute has become desirable to enable many of the demanding use cases, including industrial robotics and process control.

It is true that the huge gains made by 5G over 4G in both capacity and latency, as well as supporting IoT device density, have changed the dynamics of the WiFi/cellular equation. It has made 5G, whether public or private, the preferred choice for a number of emerging demanding use cases, such as autonomous driving and control of unattended automated vehicles (UAVs), often in locations where wireless communications have been dominated by WiFi so far. Meanwhile, WiFi will remain the preferred choice for many consumers, as well as enterprises for more general connectivity and Internet access.

One impact, then, of 5G’s ascendancy over WiFi in terms of raw performance and capacity, as well as arguably security, in the consumer, public and enterprise spaces, is to revive the debate over WiFi/cellular convergence. This is especially the case as even the forthcoming WiFi 7, due to start rolling out in 2024, does not look like closing the gap significantly on 5G for those demanding use cases, particularly on the latency front.

WiFi 6 achieved potential 10ms latency, about 10 times 5G’s, and WiFi 7 will improve that further, down to a few ms, by doubling maximum channel width to 320 MHz, as well as supporting multiple access points and multilink operation. But the latency performance will still not be deterministic given the schemes currently on the table, which means that ultra-low latency will not be guaranteed in the way it can be under 5G with the help of network slicing, for example, to partition bandwidth. WiFi will need new schemes to enable deterministic ultra-low latency, which is some distance away.

The upshot is that there is growing momentum behind WiFi/cellular convergence, and certainly to more effective coexistence. This is not so much a function of standards, which have been moving in that direction for some years. This started on the cellular side with 3GPP’s Release 8, which introduced Access Network Discovery and Selection Function (ANDSF). This enabled devices to discover non-3GPP access networks, including WiFi. By the time of Release 15 in 2018, there was optional 3GPP access for native 5G services via WiFi. Finally, Release 16 introduced Access Traffic Steering, Splitting and Switching (ATSSS), which supported both 3GPP and non-3GPP connectivity to multiple access networks, providing a foundation for convergence.

On the WiFi front, the IEEE has been discussing potential pathways to convergence for some years, even if this has not been manifested in standards. This had rather petered out as it seemed the two were destined to remain in parallel universes, but that has all changed with 5G.

This led to the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) publushing a joint report last year, promoting future convergence between WiFi and 5G, noting use cases and verticals that could benefit from closer alignment. Essentially, the campaign now extends beyond the standards bodies into the relevant industry ecosystems, especially those major vendors like Cisco and Qualcomm with feet in both camps.

This has led to growth in dual 5G/WiFi connectivity among those devices such as tablets and laptops that had been predominantly WiFi only. The trend has also been stimulated by WiFi and cellular coming into proximity in 6 GHz spectrum for unlicensed use in a number of markets, such as the USA, UK and South Korea.

With coexistence now well established, as iPhones, for example, can switch transparently between the two, pressure for convergence is coming from several sectors. Industrial is an obvious one as private 5G rolls out in factories where WiFi is already deployed. The ability to authenticate both SIM-enabled and Wi-Fi devices securely then becomes attractive, as does having both networks fully integrated for resilience.

Public hotspots are another, where the ability to use mobile credentials for automatic authentication into WiFi is a leading attraction, as well as to enhance overall capacity.

Domestic connectivity is another, stimulated partly by the growth in home working during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Here the ability to authenticate securely via smartphones is appealing to enterprises, which can then allow access to areas of their corporate network over WiFi and broadband, which previously was restricted to staff in the physical premises.

It is though the rise in 5G capacity and performance that is underlying the push for convergence.