While the US mobile operators remain severely disadvantaged in 5G spectrum terms, because of their limited access to midband airwaves, WiFi service providers are better placed than those in many other regions because the FCC is opening up new and valuable unlicensed spectrum in the 6 GHz band. This should maximize the impact of the latest WiFi standard, WiFi 6, on public, home and enterprise services in the USA, and make this technology disproportionately important compared to other countries.
Logically, that should see US MNOs seeking to harness WiFi 6, and integrate it with their cellular networks, including 5G. That would help them to keep up with the needs for more capacity without having to invest huge sums in making millimeter wave spectrum work as a wide-scale spectrum option. AT&T and T-Mobile were pioneers of WiFi/cellular convergence, and data offload to WiFi hotspots, a decade ago, but the baton has been seized in recent years by the WiFi-first and cable operators, which are the most active deployers of WiFi to support MNO-like services in the USA.
Certainly, Verizon shows no signs of trying to grab back the momentum, despite having a severe shortage of valuable midband spectrum (the only strongly positioned operator here is Sprint, with its abundant 2.5 GHz holdings). Despite reports about the extremely limited coverage, and unpredictable performance, of its early 5G deployments in millimeter wave (which are mainly for fixed wireless to homes), Verizon is insisting that mmWave 5G makes WiFi redundant in the home.
At a Citi investor conference last week, Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon’s consumer group, said up to 75% of traffic on a device today happens on WiFi rather than cellular because of the lower prices and higher capacity, especially in the home where WiFi is usually backhauled by the consumer’s broadband line.
But where mmWave 5G is deployed, he made the bold claim: “We don’t see the need for WiFi in the future because we have a more secure network environment. We have much higher performance criteria and we have the ability to hand off sessions etc etc, so our view is that when fully deployed, there are substantial environments in which public WiFi will be eliminated in favor of millimeter wave because of the security, reliability and service capabilities.”
He added: “Our view is the best experience end-to-end is being on a secure ‘six 9s’ capability wireless environment end-to-end…whether you’re a consumer or a business customer”
There are certainly environments where 5G will be superior to WiFi 6, especially any where high mobility, guaranteed quality of service, or indoor/outdoor usage are needed. But in other features that are widely associated with 5G, such as ultra-low latency, WiFi 6 is close in performance, while it can deliver higher data rates because of the large amount of spectrum it will inhabit, especially in the USA where the 5 GHz band can be extended into 6 GHz.
And while that spectrum is free and the huge WiFi ecosystem means access points are low cost, the price of building mmWave cells on a large scale is very high because the base stations have limited range, they are expensive because they involve new and challenging engineering, and they require complex configuration and tuning to overcome the limitations of high band airwaves.
Dunne says Verizon is working on devices to improve both user experience and the cost of delivery of home services, such as repeaters, extenders and mesh to improve indoor coverage for home and industrial users. This year, he expects 5G distributed antenna systems (DAS) to appear too. And he believes mmWave devices will fall below $800 this year, while the launch of a new high power Verizon 5G Home CPE will greatly improve performance.