Predictions are a funny business. Odds are you’re going to be wrong half the time—especially when it comes to technology. Bill Gates famously predicted nobody would ever make a 32-bit operating system. Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943: "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” And who can forget former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s prediction when the iPhone launched: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
There’s a reason for the adage “Predicting the future is easy; getting it right is the hard part.” So it comes as no surprise that skepticism abounds surrounding the recent predictions that Wi-Fi will go the way of the Dodo.
Unlimited data plans, LTE-Uwith all its flavors, Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and the rollout of 5G have all been trotted out as potential Wi-Fi killers. And while anything is within the realm of possibility when it comes to the fast-moving wireless space, to borrow a line from Mark Twain, the reports of Wi-Fi’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Since 2006, Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index (VNI) forecast has been the gold standard for cellular and Wi-Fi traffic projections. It’s widely respected for its accuracy and is considered the global standard for research in the wireless industry. As Cisco’s says, it's projections have been accurate within 10% over the last 11 years.
Cisco’s latest VNI predicts that globally, total public Wi-Fi hotspots will grow 6-fold from 2016 to 2021. In North America alone, the growth will still be significant, spiking 4-fold to 93.7 million by 2021. In addition, Markets and Markets has pinpointed a CAGR of 38% for the Wi-Fi as a Service market size by 2021.
If Wi-Fi is a dinosaur about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid, every major industry analyst missed the memo.
The reality is it is not possible for LTE alone to handle the onslaught of data caused by bandwidth-intensive activities like streaming and sharing. This is especially true in high-density locations, such as airports and stadiums, where people are sitting “hip to hip." Cell signals struggle in these environments to effectively transport enough bandwidth, making Wi-Fi a more reliable solution that can complement LTE.
Cellular and Wi-Fi are already deployed alongside each other in large venues today. Carriers leverage Wi-Fi to accommodate the tremendous demand for mobile data. Sprint currently offloads customer LTE traffic over to Wi-Fi and more carriers are expected to follow suit. Cisco’s 2017 VNI predicts the amount of traffic offloaded from smartphones to Wi-Fi will be 64% by 2021, and tablets at 72%.
Wi-Fi will also see a positive impact from the dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT), according to ABI Research.
By 2025, IoT is estimated to have an economic impact of $11.1 trillion a year. Trillion. Wi-Fi is the lifeblood for IoT devices, with recent data from Ericsson suggesting that cellular-based networks could be used to provide less than 15% of overall IoT connectivity in North America by 2020. The vast majority of IoT could be supported by unlicensed technologies. Today, Wi-Fi connects all the devices in a person’s home—Alexa, lightbulbs, Sonos, doorbells, you name it. Tomorrow Wi-Fi could be a go-to for revolutionizing the IoT-powered enterprise across manufacturing, factories, transportation, utilities and more.
Compared to traditional LTE, Wi-Fi has a lower cost of infrastructure, reduced latency, more throughput, can serve all endpoints respective of carrier affiliation, and is easier to deploy, making it the must have for indoor coverage, whether it’s for a home, office building or industrial plant.
Hearing predictions that unlimited mobile data plans will be the cause of Wi-Fi’s demise hearken back to 1995, when Robert Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com said, “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” Remember a few years ago when cellular plans used to be unlimited—and consumers still turned to Wi-Fi? In addition, billions of devices don’t have LTE connectivity; they need Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi also has a place in technologies like 5G and CBRS.
5G is 4G’s younger, faster, and stronger brother—the next and newest mobile wireless standard. While 5G isn't expected until 2020, it will be significantly faster than 4G, allowing for a theoretical download speed of 10,000 Mbps. So if you’re wondering if that is fast, why do we need Wi-Fi?
5G will be based on the unified aggregation of multiple bands. The wireless industry has largely accepted that this will include the convergence of LTE and Wi-Fi or other unlicensed channels. 5G is not economically practical without coexistence between licensed (LTE) and unlicensed (Wi-Fi) spectrum. In other words, 5G does not prefer one technology over another, but rather one consolidated network that handles more data with more spectrum.
However, by the time 5G systems start getting deployed, the next generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, will be ready for market. 11ax enhancements will significantly increase the efficiency of Wi-Fi networks. More specifically, 11ax will address the lack of up-link scheduling in previous versions of Wi-Fi, a capability that has been highlighted as one of the primary benefits in the 3GPP ecosystem of LTE operation in unlicensed bands. This would suggest that the divergences between 3GPP and IEEE 802.11 MAC designs are set to diminish with the introduction of 802.11ax.
The argument of CBRS’ takeover of Wi-Fi also brings a misinformed perspective. The technologies are complementary. CBRS can be viewed as another band of Wi-Fi, operating in the 3.5 GHz unlicensed channel alongside Wi-Fi at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. LTE-based CBRS solutions can maximize outdoor coverage where it makes economic sense, whereas Wi-Fi will remain the suitor for connectivity in the enterprise market and at home. It’s worth noting that the deployment of CBRS with the current defined spectrum is primarily available for the U.S.market and that it comes at a much higher cost than Wi-Fi, as it will require facilities to overhaul infrastructures with new LTE equipment.
To be fair, Wi-Fi does have its shortcomings. Public networks bring to bear security concerns and an unsatisfactory log-in process of user names and passwords when using public networks. New technologies like Passpoint offer the highest level of public Wi-Fi encryption and solve tedious log-in requirements, switching devices back and forth from LTE to Wi-Fi without user intervention.
Back in 1966, Time Magazine famously predicted, "Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” While it took another 40 years to really take off, “remote shopping” is here to stay. The same is true of Wi-Fi. To be clear, both licensed and unlicensed spectrum need a seat at the table in the connected world of today and the converged world of tomorrow. But Wi-Fi will most certainly be part of that equation. Even as LTE evolves, Wi-Fi too will evolve to power a seamlessly connected society.
Wi-Fi is not dead. Long live Wi-Fi.
Derek Peterson is chief technology officer of Boingo Wireless. He is also an adjunct professor at Colorado Technical University.