‘5G’ WiFi Explained

23 April 2013

There’s a lot of confusion starting to surface with regards to the increasingly prolific ‘5G’ WiFi that’s cropping up all over the place. Customers are, understandably, unsure if the term 5G is anything to do with 3G internet or the new 4G LTE mobile broadband standard that’s seeing widespread adoption around the globe. After all, if we already have 5G then why are we spending so much on 4G?

The truth of it is that the ‘5G’ in ‘5G WiFi’ has nothing to do with mobile broadband networks at all. It is, in fact, incredibly miss-labelled.

5G WiFi is essentially the next WiFi standard. In the past we’ve had WiFi ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘g’ and ‘n’, with ‘n’ being, until recently, the most modern and the fastest of the available options. ‘5G’ WiFi is correctly known as WiFi ‘ac’, or 802.11ac for any tech buffs out there.

WiFi ac is a new and incredibly fast form of home WiFi that is set to take over from 'n' as the new hottest network on the block. It offers up to 1Gbps of throughput, compared to the potential, but never real-world, 600Mbps of 802.11n. While its max speeds aren't quite twice as fast as a 802.11n network, ac is, in practice, much faster for general home use.

It’s high time that a new and faster form of WiFi started making the rounds. With 4G LTE available in so many regions and on so many devices, there’s a kind of weird trade off for 4G users in many households. A user can either get the great speeds of 4G, or connect to their slower home WiFi and thus use less of their monthly mobile broadband cap.

One can always turn off WiFi whenever one wants faster speeds and turn it back on for the more data-heavy stuff, but that’s an annoying level of manual management that modern tech companies seek to avoid. In short, it’s a little strange that folks can often get faster internet on their phones when they’re not connected to WiFi.

Of course, 4G LTE speeds regularly exceed that of landline connections like DSL and sometimes even cable, but for smartphone usage anything over 15Mbps is usually a luxury. The problem with past WiFi technologies is that they tendto be a bottleneck through which a lot of latency is lost. So a 14Mbps landline connection can quickly turn in to 6Mbps or less over WiFi a/b/g/n. Over WiFi ac, however, there’s a lot less lag and connection speeds are much closer that of a device which has been directly connected to the router via an Ethernet cable.

Some recent smartphones like the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4 already have WiFi ac built-in. This is actually great forward-planning by the manufactures. Ac might not be too wide spread now, but within the next 24 months expect to see a lot more of it. Including it in any high-end device now is some good future-proofing.

Where marketers get off calling WiFi ac ‘5G’ is in its frequency range. Where WiFi n operates over both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, ac works only on 5GHz. 5GHz is easily enough shortened to ‘5G’, making it a shoe-in for all those ‘accidental’ connotations of it superseding 4G LTE.

It’s not too damaging a label, as ‘5G’ WiFi really does offer potential wireless broadband speeds that could leave 4G dead in its tracks, but that WiFi network must be backed up by a landline connection that is itself faster than any 4G network in its area if it's to succeed in this. After all, a WiFi network can't offer faster speeds than its parent landline connection.

Will My Current Devices Work on ‘5G’ WiFi ac?

If they were made before March 2013 then probably not. Each new standard of WiFi requires a new generation of compatible devices. It was the same when WiFi n superseded WiFi g and when g overtook b, etc. Any device with an early form of WiFi should work on a WiFi ac router, but only at the speeds that it has always received. This is with the possible exception of a device built to work only on WiFi a or WiFi b, as they’re both pretty old now and manufacturers may stop bothering to cater for them.

What Are the Benefits of Only Working Over 5GHz?

There aren’t any, really. WiFi n worked over both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, which means that it gets the strengths of both frequencies and few of the weaknesses. The 5GHz spectrum is worse than 2.4GHz at penetrating solid matter, like walls and doors. This means that, while ac is much faster than n in general, it could be less efficient at transmitting from one side of a house to another, especially if the router is on a different floor to the device seeking a connection.

Don’t fret, though. Based on how transitions between WiFi technologies have worked int he past, any ac device is likely to still have n support, meaning that the router should just fall back to the 2.4GHz frequency if needed and the user can muddle by with a WiFi connection that has, until very recently, been top of the line. This doesn't mean that every ac WiFi device will have WiFi n support. Shoppers should make sure to ask or research themselves what WiFi networks any gadget works on before making a purchase.

NOTE: We couldn't find any reliable reports of ac being less efficient than n at transmitting through the same household; the potential for decreased efficiency is based purely on the fact that ac runs solely over the higher 5GHz frequency.

Will ac Devices Cost More?

At first they most likely will, either because they’re a top-of-the-line device and ac is just included as part and parcel, or because they’re specifically an ac WiFi broadcaster and ac is the new, best WiFi around.

After a while things are sure to die down a bit, as is always the way with technology. Ac-capable devices will still probably be more expensive than incompatible models, but that’s just how the tech game works. Better and newer is almost always more expensive, but the price gap between last gen and current can shorten as the newest stuff becomes less, well, ‘new’.


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