Build a smarter world with WLAN and cellular technology

27th July 2020
Alex Lynn

As next-generation wireless network infrastructure starts to be rolled out (both WLAN and cellular), there will be opportunities to support a much greater breadth of potential services. This will mean that the lifestyles of those residing in densely-populated urban environments can be markedly enhanced.

By Mark Montierth, Vice President and General Manager, NXP Semiconductors

The advent of massive multiple-input, multiple-output (or massive MIMO), along with the employment of millimeter wave (mmWave) technology, will enable 5G cellular communications to support operational performance parameters that were simply unimaginable in the past. The resulting networks will be able to deal with far higher numbers of connected devices and deliver accelerated data rates.

They will also offer ultra-low latency operation – with below 1ms being the eventual target for this. In addition, greater virtualisation will lead to networks that are more agile. There will be better matching of available resources to particular workload requirements and major spectral efficiency improvements. 

The first 5G trial networks started to be installed towards the end of last year. However, full-scale roll-out is likely to take a while yet – the current COVID-19 situation seeming certain to push things back further than what was originally expected. Nevertheless, it won’t be that long until a large proportion of the public is able to benefit from services based on 5G technology.

At the same time, the latest WiFi incarnation is already beginning to see mass uptake. WiFi 6 (or 802.11ax) represents a big step forward in WLAN, delivering far stronger performance attributes than the 802.11ac standard that it supersedes – with data rates reaching 10Gbps being supported. It occupies the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands, with the 6GHz band also being opened up to supply it with additional capacity.

Access to WiFi 6-compliant chipsets very soon after the standard was ratified has resulted in equipment manufacturers quickly embracing this technology. Several high-profile smartphone models with WiFi 6 functionality got released last year, and the consumer electronics sector as a whole is now expected to follow this lead.

In the next couple of years the appeal of WiFi 6 in an IoT context should also become increasingly apparent. Through it, a broad range of municipal and utility based functions could be executed. These will include waste management, environment monitoring, better allocation of public transport assets, smart street lighting, plus the supply of power and water. 

It is clear that under many circumstances 5G and WiFi 6 will complement one another, rather than being in direct competition. In respect to outdoor applications, the capacity of 5G will mean it is able to attend to a substantially greater number of users per cell than 4G infrastructure could support. Likewise, indoor environments are sure to benefit from the higher bandwidth and capacity figures that WiFi 6 can claim over its WLAN predecessors, but without the ongoing costs associated with cellular.

Suitability for different use case scenarios

The key factors when deciding which technology to employ will predominantly be focused around cost and security. If security is the priority, then the cellular route is going to be the best one to take. Cellular networks are able to prevent unauthorised access, as SIM cards give each user their own unique identity. The features, networks and capabilities that every subscriber is allowed to use, and their bandwidth allocation, can all be controlled accordingly.

Dispensing with network operator charges, as well as having lower unit costs for each connected node, a WLAN approach is more financially attractive to users when this is applicable. Since WiFi 6 is fully backward compatible with all prior WiFi generations, the costs involved in upgrading will be much lower. The simplicity of installing WiFi routers, and the avoidance of subscription fees, will also make this technology appealing for those managing premises that want cutting-edge WLAN connectivity at their disposal (hotels, airports, sports stadia, music venues, etc.).

Defining a smarter future

Much in the way that cellular and WiFi collaborations have been orchestrated in the past, network operators will make use of WiFi 6 access points to deliver 5G within buildings. However, an array of new application opportunities will undoubtedly also be explored. The migration of WLANs to WiFi 6 technology will allow higher resolution video content to be streamed. Furthermore, it is set to bring about a bolstering of wireless security systems (through the addition of motion detection features, etc.).

In the coming years, 5G and WiFi 6 will each have pivotal roles to play in the revolutionising of personal transportation, by providing both vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication. Through these technologies, it will be possible to make our roads safer and less prone to gridlock, allowing drivers to be warned or extreme weather conditions, avoid traffic jams ahead and find available parking spaces when they arrive at their destination. Intelligent transport system (ITS) implementations will also benefit from 5G and WiFi 6, helping them to more effectively manage traffic flows - so that congestion issues can be dealt with, commute times shortened, and the impact of pollution mitigated.


Making use of their own respective operational advantages, 5G and WiFi 6 will present our society with dramatically elevated data rates and unprecedented levels of capacity, alongside heightened responsiveness and security. Working in tandem with one another, they will thereby provide us with the comprehensive wireless coverage that emerging smart city services are destined to demand.

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