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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The Cellular Industry’s Clash Over the Movement to Remake Networks

The wireless industry is divided on Open RAN’s goal to make network components interoperable

13 min read
Photo: George Frey/AFP/Getty Images
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We've all been told that 5G wireless is going to deliver amazing capabilities and services. But it won't come cheap. When all is said and done, 5G will cost almost US $1 trillion to deploy over the next half decade. That enormous expense will be borne mostly by network operators, companies like AT&T, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, and dozens more around the world that provide cellular service to their customers. Facing such an immense cost, these operators asked a very reasonable question: How can we make this cheaper and more flexible?

Their answer: Make it possible to mix and match network components from different companies, with the goal of fostering more competition and driving down prices. At the same time, they sparked a schism within the industry over how wireless networks should be built. Their opponents—and sometimes begrudging partners—are the handful of telecom-equipment vendors capable of providing the hardware the network operators have been buying and deploying for years.

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