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The Long Goodbye of Wi-Fi Has Begun

Local 5G networks could replace the familiar wireless standard

2 min read
Illustration of wifi bars depicted as petals falling off a flower.
Illustration: Dan Page

In ten years, we won't need Wi-Fi.

At least, that's what Azhar Hussain, the CEO of IoT company Hanhaa, told me on a phone call late last year. He thinks the end of Wi-Fi is nigh because he believes that allocating spectrum in smaller chunks will let municipalities, universities, and companies create private 5G cellular networks. The convenience of those networks will impel companies to choose cellular connections over Wi-Fi for their IoT devices.

There's reason to think Hussain is right, at least for higher-value devices, such as medical devices, home appliances, and outdoor gear like pool-cleaning robots. Zach Supalla, the CEO of Particle, a company that supplies IoT components to businesses with little experience building connected products, says more than half of the IoT devices in Particle's cloud that use cellular connections are also within range of a Wi-Fi network. Supalla says that companies choose cellular modules over Wi-Fi because the modules are easier to set up and businesses can better control the consumer experience.

Wi-Fi devices are notoriously difficult to connect to one another, or pair. To get a connected product on their home Wi-Fi network, consumers must often pair with a software-based access point before switching the device over to their own network.

This process can be fraught with errors. Even I, a reporter who has tested hundreds of connected devices, fail to get a device on my network on the first try roughly a third of the time. To make it easier, Amazon and Google have both created proprietary onboarding processes that handle the setup on behalf of the user, so that when consumers power their devices on, they automatically try to join their network.

However, device manufacturers still have to implement both Amazon's and Google's programs separately, and that requires know-how that some companies don't possess. Thankfully, Amazon, Apple, and Google are now working on a smart-home standard that may simplify things. But the details are scant, and any solution they develop won't be available until 2021 at the earliest.

When you're faced with multiple Wi-Fi ecosystems, cellular is just easier, Hussain says. Cellular networks cost more now because you have to install radios on the devices and pay a subscription to use the cellular network. Hussain sees those costs coming down, potentially even disappearing, given time.

That's because he's anticipating a future where universities, businesses, and municipalities set up their own cellular networks using spectrum obtained through new spectrum auctions, such as the Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) auctions occurring in the United States in June. Cellular equipment makers are already building gear and testing these private networks in factories and offices. If new roaming plans are developed to allow devices to come onto these local networks easily, similar to joining a Wi-Fi hotspot, cellular connectivity will become practically free.

Even if Hussain's vision doesn't come to pass in the next 10 years, the costs of low-data-rate cellular contracts will continue to drop, and that could still eventually put the nail in the coffin for Wi-Fi. And I mostly agree: I think there are plenty of reasons to believe that Wi-Fi will never disappear entirely, but I do think small cellular networks will take its place in our lives.

This article appears in the February 2020 print issue as “Wi-Fi's Long Goodbye."

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How the FCC Settles Radio-Spectrum Turf Wars

Remember the 5G-airport controversy? Here’s how such disputes play out

11 min read
This photo shows a man in the basket of a cherry picker working on an antenna as an airliner passes overhead.

The airline and cellular-phone industries have been at loggerheads over the possibility that 5G transmissions from antennas such as this one, located at Los Angeles International Airport, could interfere with the radar altimeters used in aircraft.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Blue

You’ve no doubt seen the scary headlines: Will 5G Cause Planes to Crash? They appeared late last year, after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned that new 5G services from AT&T and Verizon might interfere with the radar altimeters that airplane pilots rely on to land safely. Not true, said AT&T and Verizon, with the backing of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which had authorized 5G. The altimeters are safe, they maintained. Air travelers didn’t know what to believe.

Another recent FCC decision had also created a controversy about public safety: okaying Wi-Fi devices in a 6-gigahertz frequency band long used by point-to-point microwave systems to carry safety-critical data. The microwave operators predicted that the Wi-Fi devices would disrupt their systems; the Wi-Fi interests insisted they would not. (As an attorney, I represented a microwave-industry group in the ensuing legal dispute.)

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