5G is everywhere you look – all over the media. Though it’s not surprising, as spectrum auctions have been taking place throughout Europe since last year and will be continuing until 2020. Network operators who want to be future 5G players in Germany, for example, had to submit the necessary application documents to the German Federal Network Agency by January 26. There was enormous interest, not only in the media. For the first time, it wasn’t just the three established network operators who threw their hats into the ring. So, when it actually takes place, the auction promises to be very exciting. Currently, it’s scheduled for the end of March.
5G: Opening the door to the real-time future
5G is highly exciting, both from a technological and an economic point of view. It will allow real-time cellular applications to be implemented that aren’t yet conceivable today. This is due to its huge data rates – download speeds of up to 10 Gbps should be possible under ideal conditions – and, above all, to its ultra-low latency of less than one millisecond. Popular examples of applications repeatedly cited are Industry 4.0, autonomous driving, artificial intelligence (AI) and telemedicine.
However, 5G is de facto a provider technology. Even if 100 MHz of spectrum is to be provided for the local use of industry in Germany – as currently planned –, for the majority of enterprises, 5G will be available as a charged cellular service only. Every machine, every system, every sensor (IoT) – in fact, everything that’s to be connected via 5G, will need its own SIM card (or the corresponding electronic version – eSIM) with an appropriate (charged) contract.
Wireless = mobile? The difference lies in the details
For some applications, there’s no other alternative to cellular networks. I have in mind truly mobile scenarios that take place remotely. Autonomous driving is one of the examples, as is smart farming. Smart cities based on 5G are also conceivable. Then there’s deployment in areas in which there’s no wired high-speed Internet available. Here, 5G has potential as a full-fledged means of access to gigabit Internet. The same applies for use as a backup connection for business-critical processes.
But the situation is completely different when it comes to local scenarios – for wireless applications and offerings that are to be implemented in spatially restricted areas, like (office) buildings, schools and universities, stadiums, factories or logistics centers, clinics, hotels and restaurants or, quite simply, at home. All these scenarios can be realized much more economically on the basis of a different, stationary wireless technology that has been tried and tested for many years: Wi-Fi.
The reasons are clear: in contrast to cellular networks, Wi-Fi infrastructures can be set up by anyone, on their own, in a very short time, and operated without any intermediary provider. This has great economic advantages. For Wi-Fi, there are no significant operational costs and no expensive licenses or contracts per client. Especially against the backdrop of the Internet of Things (IoT) – in which the number of devices to be interconnected is growing at a phenomenal rate – this is a very strong argument.
In addition, user companies with their own wireless infrastructure are independent and able to keep their networks completely under their own control. This is invaluable anywhere where wireless connectivity is used for business-critical applications or highly sensitive data is transmitted.
The silver bullet: duality of the networks
On the way toward a Gigabit society, coexistence of mobile and stationary radio technologies is vitally important. Both cellular networking and Wi-Fi have their own specific strengths and fields of application, which their opposite number can’t replace. Development of 5G infrastructure won’t change this.
However, there’s one prerequisite for this “duality of the networks”: there must be regular negotiations about new spectrum not only for cellular networks – and, currently, 5G. Wi-Fi urgently needs more attention, too. The last “frequency allocation” for Wi-Fi in Europe took place more than 15 years ago. It was then that the 5 GHz band was first opened up in addition to the 2.4 GHz band.
That this is no longer enough is apparent everywhere. Particularly in urban areas, where it’s increasingly difficult to get interference-free Wi-Fi. A look at future Wi-Fi standards also illustrates just how disastrous the situation is. For example, Wi-Fi 6 is already relying on spectrum that, in Europe, isn’t released for use by Wi-Fi.
Let’s hope that something will happen soon.