Let’s be honest. The Wi-Fi versus mobile data debates are old and tired.

I can remember the early iterations when Wi-Fi creeped into phones and people began asking if the 802.11 family of technologies would cannibalise 3G usage. Then, as smartphones became an integral part of our lives, we had the “revelation” that most usage was indoors, where Wi-Fi signals were more likely than cellular ones. And still, data traffic on mobile networks continued to rise, with Wi-Fi and 4G living alongside one another.

But, like my 14 year-old Icelandic Sheepdog (now somewhat blind and deaf), a well-thrown stick is all it takes to kick those debates back into action, no matter how old or tired they are. And, in 2019, that stick comes in the form of Wi-Fi 6.

If you aren’t familiar with Wi-Fi 6, the short story is pretty simple. Known from a technical perspective as 802.11ax, the follow-on to 802.11ac (now given the marketing handle of Wi-Fi 5) it uses technologies including OFDMA; Multi-user MIMO; Beamforming; new modulation options; and wake time improvements to deliver better performance. Higher throughput? Sure. But, more importantly, better user scale (support for more users/devices), and battery life and coverage improvements.

Now, if you hear some of these highlights – MIMO; Beamforming; improved throughput; enhanced user capacity; boosted battery life – and think 5G, you’re not alone. These are exactly the sorts of things 5G is supposed to bring.

Thus, we return to the age-old question of whether or not Wi-Fi and mobile data are friends or enemies, and whether or not one can replace the other. Or, in a view of the world taken from the film Highlander, will these long-lived technologies battle until only one remains? There can be only one, right? And 6 is better than 5.

A kind of magic?
Let’s put aside the question of mobility support (where cellular technologies excel) and the indoor-versus-outdoor dynamic. Let’s put aside 5G’s focus on edge computing and network slicing: after all, those should be possible with Wi-Fi. Where mobile networks have always had an upper hand is on the authentication and on-boarding front. Pop a SIM into your phone and it works. Get into a moving bus or car and it works. Roam from one country to another and it works. There’s no need for splash pages, logins or fears of security breaches due to dodgy public hotspots.

In launching its Wi-Fi 6 portfolio this week, then, it was great to see Cisco introduce its OpenRoaming initiative. The concept leverages Hotspot 2.0 technologies alongside a “federation” of Wi-Fi access providers (retailers, venues, hotels, et cetera) and identity providers (operators, device vendors and cloud providers) to deliver seamless connectivity onto Wi-Fi networks, and across Wi-Fi and mobile data networks.

As Cisco’s SVP of product management for Enterprise Networking Sachin Gupta put it during a virtual launch event held for customers, “imagine a world where you can walk in anywhere and you’re on the network.” In retort, Cisco’s Enterprise Networking GM Scott Harrell summed up how most of us feel: “I’m looking forward to that world. That will be awesome.”

He’s correct, it would be awesome. More importantly, if Wi-Fi 6 can deliver on all of its performance promises and if the average user can expect seamless Wi-Fi 6 connectivity, then it really would be a viable alternative to 4G or 5G, at least for many indoor and campus environments.

Done deal. Call the debate over?

Waiting for the hammer to fall
Well, there’s a lot of “ifs” above. That said, I don’t doubt any of the technical claims (no more than I doubt the technical promises of 5G). Where things often break down in bringing new ecosystems to life is the commercial front. Even where the technologies are fully in place, the business cases and organisational will necessary to move forward are often the major impediment.

Consider a few directional indicators:
– Hotspot 2.0 (an OpenRoaming enabler) has been around for a while. And yet, the mass deployments once hoped for haven’t arrived.
– In highlighting how the OpenRoaming Federation will be comprised of identity providers and Wi-Fi access providers, Cisco failed to do one thing: name any of them.
– Detailed in Cisco’s OpenRoaming launch materials, the “find out more” link doesn’t actually lead anywhere beyond a “stay connected to know more” page, which doesn’t paint the picture of anything more than a good idea in the works. While this might sound like a minor nit, it is all indicative of something that is either not fully baked, somewhat rushed or lacking in support.

With that, we have a conclusion to the debate. Or rather, a sign that there is no debate. Nothing has changed from the first, second or last time we all asked whether Wi-Fi was going to kill mobile data…or vice-versa.

With Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi will be significantly better. With 5G, mobile data will be better. We will still live with both. They will live together. No debate.

And, hopefully, my dog is around long enough to see the next stick get thrown about.

– Peter Jarich – head of GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.