Bharat Sharma, Director Pre-sales, India and SAARC, Cambium Networks

The Indian telecom industry is witnessing testing times with incumbent service providers at an inflection point. Theses uncertain times have resulted in a dramatic drop in telecom infrastructure investments. The age-old issue of scarcity of spectrum continues to persist. Under such circumstances, one area that has largely remained untouched is Wi-Fi access.

Wi-Fi does away with the dependency on licensed spectrum – otherwise a key consideration from an investment perspective, because it operates on unlicensed spectrum and hence is easily available. In India particularly, the recent times have seen brands beyond telecom service providers, benefiting from the easy deployment of Wi-Fi and leveraging the medium to engage with endusers more closely by way of offering connectivity. Thus, we now have key establishments such as railway stations, airports, ports and even airlines offering Wi-Fi based connectivity.

Wi-Fi is also completing last-mile connectivity, thereby enriching end-user experience. In urban areas, where in-house connectivity remains a pertinent issue, particularly in the backdrop of scarce spectrum, Wi-Fi provides reliable, high capacity connectivity. Thus, even densely populated areas resort to Wi-Fi connectivity as a last-mile medium. In terms of rural connectivity, the availability of Wi-Fi has helped transform the lifestyle altogether with concepts such as tele-education and telemedicine witnessing higher uptake. Additionally, under the purview of common service centres, egovernance benefits have reached a larger audience resulting in direct government-to-citizen access, and helping in doing away with intermediaries.

The role of Wi-Fi in enhancing infrastructure development is also an evident trend. Wi-Fi networks are enabling even remotely located ports to be “mainlined” with wireless connectivity, thereby allowing the port ecosystem players to leverage new-age digital technologies such as Cloud, global positioning system, and internet of things (IoT). Take, for instance, an Indian port that is now equipped with a wireless wide area network (WAN) to support a Wi-Fi access network for industrial IoT (IIoT) radio frequency identification systems, Wi-Fi at port berths, and CCTV video surveillance security systems. Thus, overall, ports are now connected end to end resulting in the incorporation of business excellence, and enhancing elements including reducing the cost of ownership.

The increased demand for and relevance of Wi-Fi has resulted in research and development investments in the field. A resultant outcome is that Wi-Fi has now evolved to 802.11ax or sixth-generation Wi-Fi technology. This evolved version of Wi-Fi is designed to cater specifically to rich media content including video. High resolution media such as 4K or 8K as well as complex data collated over the IoT network can be managed by 802.11ax.

There is considerable discussion about the long-term viability of Wi-Fi as new 5G networks are being developed. 5G is not going to replace Wi-Fi. Based on the cost per Mbps data communication, using Wi-Fi for wireless local area networks (WLANs) is much lower than that of 5G and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. 802.11ax (also now known as Wi-Fi 6) has many advances in the Wi-Fi protocol that enhance performance, especially for applications commonly used.

There are three reasons that 5G will not replace Wi-Fi in the foreseeable future:

  • Wi-Fi chipsets are low cost, thus delivering the lowest cost per Mbps ratio. Wi-Fi chips are used in everything from smartphones, to PCs and from enterprise devices to consumer smart home devices. Each year, over 3 billion Wi-Fi chips are shipped. The new enterprise network may very well be found in the consumer home as a host of connected “things” will increase the demand for enterprise-grade connectivity and reliability.
  • The 802.11ax standard embraces and supports the same goals as 5G, chiefly greater spectrum efficiency, deterministic networking, and service slicing. 802.11ax and 5G share common goals and complementary implementations. Nothing in the foreseeable future will change the easy deployment and high capacity networks that underlie the success of the 802.11 Wi-Fi standards.
  • Public access Wi-Fi is a service-based economic model whereas mobile cellular networks are a fee-based economic model. Consider the number of hotels, coffee shops, restaurants, transportation hubs, and even public parks and urban cities that offer free Wi-Fi access. The services delivered over the top of public Wi-Fi access more than pay for the cost of the network equipment. Mobile access networks based on 5G are fee based and cannot replace the servicebased free network access offered by public Wi-Fi.