The debate around Wi-Fi and cellular convergence has been around for years. However, the introduction of next-generation mobile and cellular technologies, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, has reignited this discussion. Industry bodies, including the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), are developing standards to enable the convergence between 5G and Wi-Fi. This amalgamation is enabling new use cases and business opportunities for the industry. Meanwhile, WBA’s OpenRoaming is gaining momentum as a means to enable cellular-like roaming over Wi-Fi networks.
5G, introduced by 3GPP’s release 15 in 2018 and deployed globally by telecom operators since 2019, is considered a significant upgrade to 4G/LTE. 5G networks promise 50 times more speed, 10 times less latency and 1,000 times more capacity than 4G/LTE. Simultaneously, Wi-Fi has evolved into its sixth generation, with Wi-Fi 6 technology emerging in 2019. Wi-Fi 6 offers four times higher capacity and 75 per cent lower latency, offering nearly triple the speed of its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 is designed to work in harmony with 5G, enabling faster and more reliable wireless connectivity in different setups.
Complementary, not competing technologies
There has been much discussion within the industry about whether Wi-Fi and 5G networks represent competing technologies for meeting enterprises’ connectivity and business application needs. In some countries, operators and vendors of Wi-Fi and 5G are competing for the 6 GHz spectrum to support their technology and deployments. However, the two network architectures are not in direct competition. They cater to different use cases because of their technical capabilities and cost differences, and are highly complementary.
Vendors and operators are pursuing deeper integration between these two technologies to provide more resilient and innovative network solutions as well as to effectively support a wide range of connectivity requirements. In fact, a survey by Deloitte found that 45 per cent of enterprise respondents were testing or deploying Wi-Fi 6 and 5G concurrently for their advanced wireless initiatives. Nearly all (98 per cent) said they expected their organisation would be using a combination of the two technologies within the next three years, investing equally in both. The challenge is to simplify the user experience of taking advantage of both 5G and Wi-Fi, by enabling automatic onboarding between the two technologies in a manner that works seamlessly for consumers while still benefiting the carriers. This is where convergence comes in.
Convergence on the horizon
Industry bodies and innovators are pushing 5G and Wi-Fi 6 usages from a point of co-existence to that of intelligently integrated convergence. The WBA and NGMN released a joint report in 2021 promoting the future convergence between Wi-Fi and 5G. The report highlights the merits of convergence, underlining various use cases and verticals that could benefit from the integration of the two technologies. Similarly, the 3GPP has increasingly sought to release standards that enable convergence between Wi-Fi and cellular. Most recently, 3GPP’s release 16 introduced access traffic steering, splitting and switching, allowing both 3GPP and non-3GPP connectivity to multiple access networks, which is a key enabler of the resilience model of convergence. Some of the technical details of convergence were highlighted in a study published by 3GPP, which examined the feasibility of convergence by looking specifically at local area network (LAN) support for 5G and how 5G LAN-type services could provide LAN emulation capability that works with both Wi-Fi and mobile wireless networks. The study posits that this would eliminate the need for a Wi-Fi backbone, and Wi-Fi and mobile devices would connect to a single radio network that is based on 5G technology.
Further, the possibility of convergence has been supported in recent years by releases of spectrum in the 6GHz range for unlicensed use in many countries. Spectrum in the same 6GHz band can also be used to support 5G networks. Such a model of spectrum sharing can theoretically promote closer coupling of Wi-Fi and 5G. However, given similar propagation characteristics for each technology, it remains to be proven as to whether the increasing availability of spectrum will help accelerate convergence.
Use cases and benefits
The convergence between Wi-Fi and 5G has given rise to two types of use cases. The first is the resilience model, wherein simultaneous connectivity to both Wi-Fi and cellular from the same device allows one form of connectivity to act as a backup if the other goes down or experiences a drop. This can support mission-critical use cases by offering higher resilience for applications that might otherwise shut down in the absence of connectivity. The second category is the switchover model. Contrary to the resilience model, the devices here are not connected to both Wi-Fi and cellular simultaneously but are authenticated through a single enterprise system. This enables open roaming and paves a seamless path for devices moving between Wi-Fi and cellular. This model is particularly valuable for campus use cases, such as autonomous vehicles roaming indoor/outdoor campuses as they can benefit from the handover between the two types of connectivity. The converged solution can benefit various verticals including remote healthcare, smart manufacturing, smart education, modern retail and augmented reality/virtual reality applications.
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G convergence can offer significant benefits to cellular operators, public Wi-Fi solution providers, and enterprises. Public networks have become increasingly congested due to the proliferation of connected devices and the growing demand for data, resulting in slow and unreliable connectivity. The deployment of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will help public network connections become faster, more reliable and more secure. Organisations can use Wi-Fi 6 and 5G together to address network gaps where numerous users require uncompromising connectivity support. Enterprises can combine 5G and Wi-Fi to provide better coverage for mission-critical applications. With 5G, Wi-Fi 6 provides more capacity than all the other Wi-Fi bands combined and delivers connections with speeds equivalent to the new advanced 5G mobile, which allows it to support low-latency levels required for critical use cases.
There are several barriers that the industry must address and technology inflection points they must reach for widespread convergence. At the most basic level, converged Wi-Fi/5G capabilities would need to be supported by both networks and devices. This means two large ecosystems with thousands of stakeholders will need to work in concert. Even then, there would be significant technical barriers to deeper architectural convergence. Smooth handovers between 5G and Wi-Fi networks, as users move, can be complex, requiring standardised protocols and interfaces. Deploying the necessary infrastructure for convergence can be costly, especially for smaller operators. Architectural convergence is only the initial step. Significant work remains to address parameters such as end-to-end quality of service and security. Managing and orchestrating resources across multiple networks can also pose operational challenges. Both 5G and Wi-Fi use their own distinct policy frameworks, which would need to be coordinated, and that integration has not been defined yet.
Move towards OpenRoaming
OpenRoaming was first announced by the WBA in 2020 and commercially deployed a year later. It is an open industry standard that automates device roaming between different Wi-Fi networks. It offers users frictionless connectivity between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, allowing devices to connect to Wi-Fi networks securely and automatically without the user needing to repeatedly enter login credentials. Unlike cellular networks, where operators establish peering agreements between each other, OpenRoaming will allow Wi-Fi network operators to opt for a neutral global roaming network managed by the WBA. It also provides an open framework for all types of players to join and develop their Wi-Fi services and create new business opportunities. OpenRoaming has been rolled out across 3 million Wi-Fi access points in the world. In India, HFCL Limited became the first enterprise in April 2023 to offer OpenRoaming across its complete Wi-Fi portfolio.
The bottom line
As standards for Wi-Fi and cellular become increasingly intertwined, there is a very high technical possibility for convergence. This will potentially create significant opportunities for cellular and Wi-Fi network architectures as we move to a more connected world. However, it remains to be seen if deep convergence will happen at scale. Further developments in areas such as WBA OpenRoaming are also expected. With OpenRoaming, devices and users will connect to Wi-Fi networks seamlessly, securely and privately while receiving a cellular-style experience. Overall, the wireless future is not just 5G and not just Wi-Fi. It is 5G and Wi-Fi.