The rollout of 5G networks promises faster speeds and lower latency than previous cellular network generations. This has led some to speculate that 5G may beat out Wi-Fi in the future. This article examines the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi and whether 5G is likely to replace Wi-Fi.
How 5G Compares to Wi-Fi
5G and Wi-Fi have some notable differences:
- 5G theoretical peak speeds are 20 Gbps down and 10 Gbps up. Real-world speeds will likely reach 1-2 Gbps down.
- Wi-Fi 6 theoretical peak speeds are 9.6 Gbps down. Typical real-world speeds are 300-900 Mbps down.
- 5G latency could be as low as 1 millisecond.
- Wi-Fi latency is typically between 10-30 milliseconds.
- 5G cells have a range of about 2 miles from the cell tower.
- Wi-Fi range is generally 100-150 feet indoors.
- 5G seamlessly hands off connections between cell towers allowing for mobility.
- Wi-Fi requires reconnection when moving between access points.
- 5G coverage is still limited but expanding quickly.
- Wi-Fi access points are ubiquitous in homes, offices, and public areas.
So in many ways, 5G outperforms Wi-Fi – especially in speed, latency, and mobility. However, Wi-Fi access is much more widely available currently.
Will 5G Replace Wi-Fi?
Given the strengths of 5G networks, some analysts have predicted that 5G may beat out Wi-Fi in the future. However, there are some challenges to 5G replacing Wi-Fi:
Data Caps – Most 5G plans have data caps while Wi-Fi does not. This constrains mobility use cases.
Indoor Coverage – 5G signals can struggle to penetrate buildings while Wi-Fi is designed for indoor use.
Power Consumption – 5G radios consume more device battery than Wi-Fi chips.
Network Congestion – In dense usage areas, 5G speeds may slow down more than Wi-Fi.
Cost – Expanding 5G networks is extremely expensive for carriers and doling out 5G spectrum cost governments billions. This high cost may be passed onto consumers through fees.
For these reasons, most analysts expect 5G and Wi-Fi to co-exist rather than 5G replacing Wi-Fi outright. Each technology has strengths that complement the other. Wi-Fi will continue to be the primary way we connect devices at home, work, and in public spaces. 5G opens up new opportunities for connectivity when on the go,but Wi-Fi offloading will help address 5G congestion risks.
Rather than a 5G vs Wi-Fi scenario, we’re more likely to see interoperability between cellular networks and Wi-Fi. Some examples of how 5G and Wi-Fi interworking could manifest:
- 5G used as a backhaul to provide public Wi-Fi hotspots
- Seamless handoffs between 5G and Wi-Fi networks
- 5G carriers deploying Wi-Fi access points
- Wi-Fi 6E boosting capacity in congested 5G areas
So 5G and Wi-Fi should be viewed as complementary technologies rather than competitors.
- 5G brings much faster speeds, lower latency, and improved mobility over 4G LTE and Wi-Fi.
- However, Wi-Fi maintains advantages in indoor use cases, network availability, cost, and efficiency.
- We will likely see 5G and Wi-Fi co-exist and interoperate rather than 5G replacing Wi-Fi.
- Over time, we should expect to see more cooperation than competition between the cellular and Wi-Fi worlds.
5G certainly brings impressive technological capabilities exceeding previous cellular generations and Wi-Fi standards. However, for practical and economic reasons Wi-Fi infrastructure will continue playing a major role – especially for indoor connectivity. We’re likely to see 5G and Wi-Fi complement each other in the future with interworking between the two technologies. Rather than a question of “will 5G beat Wi-Fi”, we’ll more likely see a blurring of lines between cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What is 5G?
5G is the 5th generation of cellular network technology that brings faster speeds (up to 20 Gbps peak), lower latency, and the ability to connect more devices than the previous 4G LTE standard.
- How does 5G work?
5G uses a new radio technology called 5G NR that can utilize different bands of spectrum including existing cellular frequencies and new high-frequency millimeter wave bands. This widens the available lanes for data traffic.
- Is 5G safe?
Extensive research on 5G safety has found no established health risks from 5G technology. The radio signals from 5G are non-ionizing and fall well below safety limits set by regulatory health agencies.
- When will we see full 5G rollout?
Widespread public 5G networks went live in 2019 in the US with additional network buildouts continuing over the next few years. We likely won’t see fully built-out mainstream 5G coverage until around 2025.
- How fast is 5G?
Peak theoretical 5G download speeds can reach 20 Gbps. However, real-world speeds will likely land between 100 Mbps – 1 Gbps for most users. This is still around 10-100X faster than typical 4G speeds today.
- Will 5G replace Wi-Fi?
No, 5G and Wi-Fi will likely coexist serving complementary purposes. Wi-Fi maintains strengths like unlimited data, efficiency, and ubiquitous deployment that will ensure it continues playing a major role – especially for indoor wireless connectivity.
- Is 5G dangerous to Wi-Fi?
No. While 5G brings impressive capabilities and performance exceeding Wi-Fi standards today, it is not dangerous to nor is it likely to make Wi-Fi obsolete. We will see interoperability between 5G and Wi-Fi with cellular carriers potentially leveraging Wi-Fi networks.
- What frequencies does 5G use?
G uses a wide range of frequency bands including existing cellular frequencies under 6 GHz as well as new high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum in the 24 – 72 GHz range.
- Will 5G replace fiber optic cable?
No. While 5G brings very fast wireless speeds, fiber optic cable will continue serving as the backbone of internet infrastructure. Fiber can carry vastly more data with higher reliability and security than any wireless technology.
- Is 5G necessary?
While 4G LTE could theoretically deliver speeds rivaling initial 5G deployments, next-generation 5G networks bring lower latency, increased capacity, and improved reliability that will enable new technologies and use cases not possible before such as self-driving cars, cloud gaming, smart cities infrastructure and advanced industrial automation.
- How does 5G work differently than 4G or LTE?
5G introduces an entirely new radio access technology called 5G NR that can utilize a greater amount of spectrum across many different frequency bands – from low to high bands – creating much wider lanes for cellular data traffic leading to huge performance improvements over 4G LTE.
- Will my smartphone be compatible with 5G networks?
You need a 5G-enabled phone with a 5G data plan from your wireless carrier to connect to 5G networks. All recent high-end Android smartphones and iPhones support 5G connectivity.
- Can I get 5G with my current wireless plan?
You typically need to be on one of your carrier’s designated 5G plans to access 5G networks. Most carriers now offer 5G plans either as an add-on or standard plan option as they continue building out 5G coverage.
- Is 5G home internet available yet?
Yes. All major wireless carriers now offer commercial 5G home wireless plans that can deliver speeds rivaling or exceeding typical residential cable and fiber plans – though availability depends on your location and 5G coverage may still be limited in many areas.
- Why does my 5G connection show “5Ge” instead of “5G”?
AT&T initially misleadingly labeled some of its advanced 4G LTE networks as “5Ge”. This is not true multi-gigabit 5G. You must be connected to their real 5G networks to see the 5G logo which should show much faster than 4G LTE speeds.
- Is 5G dangerous to my health?
There is no evidence that 5G poses health risks according to evaluations from dozens of independent expert health organizations worldwide after extensive reviews of all available research on 5G safety. Like prior cellular standards, 5G networks operate far below the RF energy levels known to cause harm.
- Are 5G towers dangerous?
No – decades of cell tower safety research has found no established health risks including cancer that can be attributed to cellular antenna RF energy exposures which fall well below all science-based safety limits determined safe by health experts to protect against all known dangers.
- Do I need line-of-sight to get 5G
The high frequency 5G mmWave signals that deliver multi-gigabit speeds do require line-of-sight access points. However, most initial mainstream 5G coverage leverages lower frequency bands that penetrate buildings much like 4G LTE so guaranteeing unobstructed line-of-sight is generally not necessary.
- Can trees block 5G signals?
At higher mmWave frequencies, obstacles like trees, walls, glass and even your hand can block signals. Multi-gigabit 5G depends on many small cells to blanket obstruction-prone mmWave signals across areas. Lower band 5G penetrates similar to 4G signals.
- Does 5G cause COVID-19?
No. Claims that 5G helps spread COVID-19 or weakens the immune system have been conclusively disproven. Viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 cannot transmit over radio waves. COVID is spread through respiratory droplets – not cellular or radio signals.
- Can I get 5G in rural areas?
Expanding reliable 5G coverage to rural areas lacking good 4G LTE access poses a challenge requiring substantial infrastructure investment to address the geography and economics. However, the 5G buildout process aims to continuously expand coverage beyond initial urban and suburban launches.