Wired vs Wireless: From Competition to Cooperation

In home and enterprise networks, historically the choice was between a wired or wireless network. The two competed for prominence, and it was up to the person paying the bill to decide the type of network they needed to best solve their problem.

Wired networks provided the necessity; high-speed, high-reliability connectivity, whereas wireless networks (in almost all cases, Wi-Fi networks) were a nice-to-have; convenient for some uses but no substitute for the capabilities provided by the wired network.

Today, the reverse is true. A wireless network is the necessity, thanks to the almost universal prevalence of ever-smaller mobile devices eschewing wired network connectivity, and the enhanced speeds and reliability provided by recent Wi-Fi standards. Many enterprise networks, and most home networks, simply don’t have wired networks which connect to end user devices directly.

The average wireless network now outpaces the average wired network in terms of speed, and this trend is only set to continue as we look to the next iteration of Wi-Fi, 802.11ax, and the greatly enhanced data throughputs it is designed to deliver.

In these networks today, the wired network exists only to enable the wireless network by providing its wireless access points with data connectivity to the rest of the network or to an internet connection, and in the enterprise, also providing them with power (by using Power over Ethernet).

Wired and wireless networks are no longer competing as they once were; instead, we see a new model of cooperation. This opens up new and interesting possibilities – in fact, new wired Ethernet standards for 2.5 and 5 Gbps speeds were created to support increasingly fast enterprise Wi-Fi access points, driven today by the 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard in its so-called ‘wave 2’ iteration which incorporates higher throughputs by the use of MU-MIMO, where multiple clients send and receive data concurrently.

What this new model also shows us is that the choice of technology is driven by utility. Intel can be credited with giving Wi-Fi a huge amount of exposure and prompting a proportional increase in adoption by driving its Centrino mobile platform in the mid-2000s, which combined a low-power CPU with Wi-Fi for wireless network connectivity as standard.

Even though 802.11b Wi-Fi and the devices supporting it didn’t provide speeds or reliability close to matching that of wired networks of the day, or anywhere near those provided by today’s wireless networks, it didn’t matter; it was good enough for massive numbers of users to get done what they needed to do in a convenient and simple fashion.

Those betting that wireless networks would never overtake their wired counterparts have been overtaken themselves by the strong end user preference for wireless connectivity, even in the enterprise where it was thought for many years that wired networks would always rule the day due to reliability, speed and quality of service advantages.

At the same time, wireless networks can’t fully replace their wired cousins, as they rely on them for data connectivity and power themselves. As cooperation between wired and wireless networks has increased, wired networks have receded from the network edge, but show no signs of truly disappearing in the near future.

No matter which type of network, technology standard or even vendor is used, we should always remember that networks exist to deliver applications. Users decide what delivers their application the best, and their answer may surprise us: the history of technology is littered with the failures of technically superior products and technologies, that fell at the hands of ‘good-enough’, or by failing to meet a unique and undervalued need, such as mobility.

One thing seems certain: in years to come, wireless networks will continue to be the dominant access layer of choice for enterprise and home networks, but will still remain reliant on increasingly fast wired networks.

Of course, as with anything in technology, this could change. For example, the development of the 802.11ad 60 GHz Wi-Fi standard, capable of multi-gigabit throughput over very short distances using narrow, controlled wireless beams, may in future be used as a wire replacement technology. If this happens, wired networks may retreat entirely from the home and be further pushed back to the network core in the enterprise.

The argument can also be made that wireless technologies are driving a faster pace of change in their wired counterparts, which have been relatively static for a number of years.

Whether competing or cooperating, network technology continues its evolution to better solve the challenges of its users. Whether you prefer wired or wireless networks, this can only be a good thing.

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