Welcome to 2019, where you will find aggressively marketed to you a new upgrade in Wi-Fi called “Wi-Fi 6” and just about every mobile provider will try to sell you some “new, exciting, 5G service!” But funny thing. If you buy a new “Wi-Fi 6” wireless router you know exactly what you’re getting. It supports the latest IEEE 802.11ax protocol, operating on existing Wi-Fi frequencies of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, and any other frequencies listed on the package. (You can see a summary of how 802.11ax differs from 802.11ac here.) By contrast, not only does the term “5G” tell you nothing about the capabilities (or frequencies, for them what care) of the device, but what “5G” means will vary tremendously from carrier to carrier. So while you can fairly easily decide whether you want a new Wi-Fi 6 router, and then just buy one from anywhere, you are going to want to very carefully and very thoroughly interrogate any mobile carrier about what their “5G” service does and what limitations (including geographic limitations) it has.
Why the difference? It’s not simply that we live in a world where the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) lets mobile carriers get away with whatever marketing hype they can think up, such as selling “unlimited” plans that are not, in fact unlimited. It has to do with the fact that back in the early 00s, the unlicensed spectrum/Wi-Fi community decided to solve the confusion problem by eliminating confusion, whereas the licensed/mobile carrier world decided to solve the confusion problem by embracing it. As I explain below, that wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision given the nature of licensed mobile service v. unlicensed. But it does mean that 5G will suffer from Forest Gump Syndrome for the foreseeable future. (“5G is like a box of chocolates, you never know what to expect.”) It also means that, for the foreseeable future, consumers will basically need to become experts in a bunch of different technologies to figure out what flavor of “5G” they want, or whether to just wait a few years for the market to stabilize.
More below . . . .
What Is A “G” Again?
I covered this several months ago in my rather lengthy post trying to explain what the heck 5G actually does and whether it’s got any substance or just a marketing scam (answer: some of each, but for consumers mostly scam at the moment). A “G” for wireless is a very informal term meaning a new generation of technology. Typically, we mean a shift in technology that radically changes the capabilities and the network architecture of wireless systems. Often this includes opening new frequencies (which may or may not mean different physics, which also impacts both the potential capabilities and mandates changes in the architecture). For example, the shift from “2G” to “3G” meant going from a purely voice system to a system capable of some data functions that were fairly low-bandwidth, such as reading email. The shift from “3G” to “4G” meant going from a system designed primarily for voice to a system designed as a data network using packet-switched technology able to perform the same functions as a wireline Internet connection (adjusting for things like reliability, which is always going to be worse for wireless than wireline for reasons I will not get into now).
Because these “Gs” describe a shift in capabilities (with the implied massive shift in architecture and protocols necessary to support this upgrade in capabilities), the term “G” is of necessity pretty loosey-goosey about the precise technologies (and therefore the precise capabilities) employed. Back in 3G, we had two fairly widespread technologies that were globally accepted as “3G”: CDMA and GSM. In the late 00s, as we ramped up to 4G, we had a combination of possible technologies that all represented a significant jump over 3G capabilities, although in somewhat different ways. For awhile we had T-Mobile selling HSPA+ as 4G, while Sprint pushed WiMax as 4G and AT&T and Verizon pushed LTE as 4G. Eventually, for reasons I won’t get into here, LTE beat out HSPA+ and WiMax to become the default technology for 4G mobile services worldwide.
Because for the last 7 or 8 years “4G” has been synonymous with LTE, we’ve gotten used to the idea that describing something as 4G over 3G means a specific technology (LTE) and a specific set of capabilities (it does what LTE enables). But that’s not because some standards body like 3GPP or an agency like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined what “4G” meant. It happened because the global market which made economies of scale and global interoperability so important drove carriers to all select one technology for the current generation of mobile services.
But as I described back in the summer, what we call “5G” is actually a rather confused set of new technologies and functionalities that have yet to settle out yet. The one thing they all have in common is that they differ either in network architecture, or frequency, or both, from existing LTE networks. So it’s completely honest, albeit extremely confusing for consumers, for AT&T to call a new mobile product incorporating some of these features “5G Evolution” and for Verizon to call its fixed wireless cable competitor “5G,” while T-Mobile claims that its essentially 4G deployment on its new 600 MHz spectrum is “5G” because it is an entirely new set of frequencies for mobile services.
(I give a hat tip to AT&T for cleverness in branding. “5G Evolution” manages to simultaneously promise some awesome new wonderfulness while not claiming to be the ultimate shape and form of “5G.” They can toll out an entirely different “Next Evolution” of 5G is this one doesn’t pan out for them.)
So Why Is Wi-Fi Different?
Wi-Fi works differently because instead of a handful of carriers competing against each other on the basis of mobile network capability without regard to technology, the original equipment manufacturers of Wi-Fi equipment were actually trying to sell a specific technology and not a service. The FCC opened up unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz band and power high enough to do networking in 1989. For about a decade, we had various technologies (some of my fellow geezers may recognize the name Ricochet as an early pioneer in fixed wireless). It wasn’t until 1999 that the IEEE developed what we now recognize as the first “wi-fi” protocols for wireless local area networks — 802.11a and 802.11b. Having an international standard allowed equipment manufacturers to start cranking out massive quantities of chips for all kinds of interoperable equipment. What drove the price down rapidly was was the fact that any device could run the 802.11 standards, and this would automatically make them interoperable with any other device running the same (or backwards compatible) 802.11 protocol. People called devices using these protocols “wifi,” as a play on the “Hi-Fi” audio technology of the 1960s.
This created an interesting dilemma for equipment manufacturers. On the one hand, equipment manufacturers wanted to convey to consumers that the devices they sold were compatible with other devices using the 802.11 protocols, even if they bought these devices from another vendor. Apple wanted to make sure you knew that their wi-fi router worked with the “wi-fi enabled” printer you bought from HP, so you would buy Apple’s router to connect your new Mac with your existing printer. At the same time, equipment providers want to distinguish themselves from each other. They want to offer different, sometimes non-compatible, wireless protocols. But with “wifi” increasingly becoming the generic term for any kind of wireless device connectivity that wasn’t Bluetooth, vendors had an incentive to market any product as “wifi” regardless of whether it used the 802.11 protocols or not so the public would at least kinda know what the device did and want to buy it.
Vendors created the Wi-Fi Alliance to solve this problem. It works on the same principle as the UL certification. The Alliance registered a bunch of service marks (including “Wi-Fi” as opposed to “wifi”) and set up a bunch of criteria for anyone who wanted to get certified as “Wi-Fi” and therefore compatible with all other “Wi-Fi” devices bearing the Wi-Fi Alliance seal of approval. Among these requirements is that anything certified by Wi-Fi Alliance as “Wi-F” has to use the IEEE 802.11 protocol suite. This ensured that any device marketed as “Wi-Fi” would mean the same thing regardless of vendor or geographic market. (Wi-Fi Alliance now does a lot of other things as well. you can read more about them on their website.)
So What Is Wi-Fi 6? And What Happened to Wi-Fis 1-5?
For a long time, it was enough for people to know that something was “Wi-Fi.” If you wanted to know more information, like what 802.11 protocols it supported and what frequencies, you looked at the device specifications on the box. But as more and more Wi-Fi protocols come out, and (hopefully) more frequencies get opened for unlicensed use compatible with Wi-Fi, it becomes useful to know more easily what protocols a device actually supports. It also has marketing implications. Wi-Fi is no longer purely about device marketing to techies setting up networks. It’s about selling products and services to consumers who don’t know or care about things like IEEE standards. That takes a product name that sounds impressive (you know, like “5G”). But unlike 5G, we still want standardization so we know what the heck we are buying. So vendors don’t want to just make up a new brand name (remember when TV white spaces supporters tried to brand the TVWS as “Super WiFi?” Wi-Fi Alliance made it very clear that “Super WiFi” was a bogus, made up term that didn’t mean anything, not to be confused with “Wi-Fi” as certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. That died pretty fast, and we are still stuck with the lousy name “TV white spaces.”)
So Wi-Fi Alliance has now authorized a fancy new moniker “Wi-Fi 6.” Contrary to what you might think, this is not in honor of Big Hero 6. (OK, none of you were thinking that. But now that I’ve suggested it, doesn’t it sound cool. After all, it took some sort of wireless tech to get all those nanobots to work together.) Instead, it’s because this is the 6th major IEEE 802.11 protocol release (Legacy 802.11, 802.11b, 802.11g 802.11n, 802.11ac, and now 802.11ax). It also has the advantage of sounding even more impressive than 5G. “You have 5G? Oh yeah? Well we have Wi-Fi 6! It is obviously more impressive, because it goes up to “6.” (And, of course, our 802s go to .11.)
What Does This Mean To Me As A Consumer?
Sadly, it means that shopping for exciting new 5G devices is going to be a hot, confusing mess for the foreseeable future. We consumers will spend 2019 (and probably into 2020) endlessly bombarded by 5G MEGAHYPE!! As a consumer, you will have no idea what this means, or what new features it provides, or what devices will ultimately be compatible with it. You are also increasingly likely to see devices meant to be networked with other devices (like your various smart appliances and digital assistants and home hubs and sex toys) screaming that they are “5G compatible” or “Wi-Fi 6 enabled” or some variation on wither or both.
If it’s Wi-Fi 6, you should probably look for it when upgrading, but not upgrade just to get it. As with every other new 802.11 protocol release, the rest of the industry will gradually incorporate the new Wi-Fi protocol into their stuff. You might not find too many Wi-Fi networks that support Wi-Fi 6 today, but in a few years they will be all over the place. If you are upgrading a phone or iPad in 2019, and plan to own it for a few years, you probably want to see if you can get it with Wi-Fi 6. But don’t pay too much extra. It’ll be a couple of years before it’s ubiquitous the way Wi-Fi 802.11n has become.
By contrast, unless you’re an early adopter type that enjoys trying to guess what tech standard will dominate and don’t mind the risk of ending up with the mobile equivalent of a stack of HD DVDs, you ought to be really careful about buying anything labeled “5G” until at least 2020, maybe even 2021. It’s going to take some years for the market to settle on the technology and business model. Not that you need to avoid it altogether. For example, if you are really pissed off at your local cable operator, you might want to consider Verizon’s fixed wireless 5G alternative. Just understand you’re rolling the dice and — as happened with Sprint’s WiMax network — there is no guarantee the service will still be here 5 years from now. Similarly, if you want the latest iPhone or Galaxy that proudly bills itself as “5G compatible,” understand that those 5G features may not work if you decide to switch carriers, or even in a few years when the technology settles. Like T-Mobile subscribers who bought a “4G” HSPA+ phone in 2009, you’re rolling the dice. That’s fine if you like to gamble on new technologies. Just go into it knowing what you’re doing.
Stay tuned . . . .