What is the difference between 5G and Wi-Fi-6?

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Two new wireless technologies are in the early stages of getting rolled out. They are Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. Here’s the difference.

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi has typically been called by its legal name according to the broadcasting code set up by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Wi-Fi Alliance. Specifically, the IEEE 802 is a set of protocols for use in transmission of signals. The two most current frequencies for use today are 2.4GHZ and 5GHZ. It’s worth noting that 5Ghz Wi-Fi has absolutely nothing to do with 5G mobile networks.

Wi-Fi 6 is the marketing name given to what’s technically known as 802.11ax. Chances are the Wi-Fi router in your home is using 802.11ac (now called Wi-Fi 5). If you’re still using older equipment, it might be 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4). Although Wi-Fi 6 isn’t prevalent today, it’s starting to show up in newer routers and some devices. The latest Apple iPhones and Samsung Galaxy smartphones, for example, now support Wi-Fi 6. Other manufacturers will be adding the technical capability with their new models next year.

As clarification, Wi-Fi is the wireless signal that transmits from your home router to your wireless devices. This would include your smartphones, laptops, printers, security systems and IoT appliances. Most routers today are transmitting on Wi-Fi 5.

All of these components are competing for bandwidth on home networks, and the new Wi-Fi 6 routers will do a better job of playing traffic cop — particularly when the devices they’re talking to are Wi-Fi 6-compatible. That means that to take advantage of the Wi-Fi 6 improvements, those devices must have the built-in technology to receive Wi-Fi 6 signals. Very few are currently on the market today.

As with all updates to the Wi-Fi standard, this one is substantially faster than its predecessor. Theoretically, it supports transmissions of up to 10 gigabits a second. You’re not likely to see that in real life, given that the average broadband download speed in the United States is under 125 Mbps, according to Ookla, a provider of internet performance metrics. But the point of Wi-Fi 6 is not speed so much as to better share an internet connection on a network.

Mark Vena, a senior analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy says, “The big thing is the latency, or lack of it. When I start up a video, it just snaps to attention on Wi-Fi 6.”

But this doesn’t mean you should run right out and buy a new Wi-Fi 6 router. Besides being scarce right now, if you can find one it will run around $300-$500, which is about twice as much as you’re likely to pay a year from now. And their benefits won’t become readily apparent until you have multiple Wi-Fi 6-capable devices to connect to them.

In many places Internet providers will have a combo-unit for the modem & router together. Comcast is a good example of that. Comcast says that its next version of the combo-router will not be available until early next year, but it will have Wi-Fi 6 capability.

However, anyone looking to upgrade a smartphone, tablet or computer should definitely make sure it works with Wi-Fi 6. Newer Windows-based PCs might support it by the end of the year, but for now Mac users are out of luck.

The current best advice is NOT to buy a new device unless it has Wi-Fi 6 capability built in. Simply having a Wi-Fi 6 router will not give you more speed or connectivity if you only have Wi-Fi 5 devices. That means most everything currently in use.

5G

The 5G that all of the wireless carriers are talking about is the fifth generation of cell phone networks. If you’re talking about Wi-Fi, “5G(Hz)” refers to a frequency band: five gigahertz. If you’re talking about cellular, the “G” stands for “generation.” They’re completely different terms.

Simply put, 5G will be the cellular signal that is broadcast to your phone by your cellular service. Currently most cellular devices are connected through 4G signals. You can see a small 4G light next to the signal strength meter on most smartphones. In the future, ‘some’ non-smartphone internet connected devices will be connected through 5G but that is still 3-5 years away, if not longer.

In combination, 5G will be the cellular service connection, and Wi-Fi 6 will be the extended wireless connection from your router. They are not the same, but they will work together — just like 4G and Wi-Fi 5 do today.

When can we expect 5G to arrive?

Several manufacturers in China already are leaps and bounds ahead of other countries in developing 5G technology, including the US. While several countries are trying to test the China-developed 5G systems, they are doing so with caution. The largest 5G manufacturer, Huawei, has been found to plant signal capturing software in their 5G routers and devices, and return the contents of those signals back to China. Most countries, including the US, consider that a security issue and are banning Huawei’s devices for the time being.

But aren’t we are beginning to see 5G rolled out in limited test areas in several US cities? The catch is that it’s not real 5G.

Verizon claims to have limited 5G service in select cities now. Sprint says they will very soon. AT&T has begun offering what it calls 5G+ and T-Mobile and others are offering advanced 4G LTE .

But those services are not true 5G signals, they are augmented 4G systems carrying the 5G name. (Ahh, the marvels of American marketing.) True 5G will not be provided in the US until either: a domestic manufacturer develops the technology itself, or the US releases its ban on Huawei products. Neither of those scenarios is likely to happen anytime soon. Until that does happen what you will be sold as 5G will be nothing more than an enhanced version of 4G, though a salesperson may try to convince you otherwise.

Other than development, deployment of true 5G systems will be extremely expensive. Since 4G cellular towers can be located several miles apart and still cover a wide area, 5G will need to rely on small transmitting boxes placed on light or telephone poles approximately 100 to 200 yards apart, depending on terrain and building mass. Technically, that’s because the 5G wavelength is so short that the broadcast range is much shorter as well. Imagine the huge number of those boxes in any major city and you can imagine the extreme cost to install and service true 5G when it happens. And, of course, those costs will be passed on to the customers with a serious increase of cellular subscription monthly bills.

Additionally, concerns about high-frequency radiation damage have arisen in China as well. If you recall a decade ago researchers were claiming that cell-phones were dangerous since an active cellphone in constant use, and held right next to the head, could cause minimal brain damage. Those concerns were pretty much dismissed except for people using cell phones for long periods of time. But for the average user that concern was negligible to minimal.

The concerns about 5G, however, seem to have more validity. Researchers in China working on the development of 5G transmitters have recorded multiple cases of brain damage from the much higher frequency of the transmissions. Of course, Chinese developers are downplaying those cases, but until 5G is widely available and real-world testing can occur, the real risk cannot be determined. It may be something that needs addressing, or it may simply be as minimal as the risks for regular cell phone usage.

However, when it does become widely available, full-bore 5G is expected to offer peak speeds that are 10 to 20 times faster than the current 4G. And with very low latency, lag times will be “nearly impossible to detect,” according to Verizon.

Even though full implementation is still years away, 5G has the potential to radically change the experience on your phone, mobile device or even your home appliances. 5G could bring a quantum leap in Artificial Intelligence and augmented reality, a new level of telemedicine, scientific research, “no-latency” gaming on mobile devices, and true self-driving cars, to mention a few.

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