Three key considerations when comparing Wi-Fi and cellular for your enterprise

5G Top Stories

It’s not just the next generation of cellular technology that’s looming on the horizon, promising to transform businesses, Wi-Fi also got its own upgrade in the form of Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax. As a result, enterprises are left with a big decision about how to proceed with connectivity updates. Should they implement a private 5G network or simply upgrade their existing Wi-Fi to the latest iteration?

While there are a number of key questions to consider when deciding how to connect an enterprise moving forward, here is a look at three of the most critical.

What do you need connectivity for?

The first thing an enterprise decision maker should be asking themselves is what sort of applications the enterprise is looking to put on a network. The use cases that are the best candidate for a private cellular network are those with a high level of criticality, where reliability and security are paramount.

Further, applications that require ultra-low latency would particularly benefit from running on a private 5G networks due to feature introduced in 3GPP Release 15 5G-NR called Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URLLC). URLLC is a set of features that provide low latency and ultra-high reliability for mission critical applications such as industrial internet, smart grids and remote surgery.

According to the IMT-2020 requirements, which underpin 5G standards, end-to-end latency of next-generation networks should be 4 milliseconds or less, or sub-5ms, for enhanced mobile broadband applications. The requirements also suggest that latency should be less than 1 millisecond for URLLC.

Finally, cellular technology, as it always has, offers a level of mobility that Wi-Fi doesn’t. Because cellular systems are inherently mobile, they are designed from the ground up to be able to pick up even a weak signal, making them a more robust choice. Therefore, for enterprises that have mobile assets, such as automated warehouse pickers or other types of robots, a private cellular network might prove transformative. 

What spectrum will your applications operate on?

One thing to think about when designing an indoor network is the fact that Wi-Fi and cellular traditionally operate on different spectrum, with the most significant difference being that Wi-Fi makes use of unlicensed spectrum, while cellular is on licensed spectrum, making this a fundamental topic when comparing the two.

There are, of course, stricter rules in the licensed spaced, while on the other hand, unlicensed spectrum is more like a sandbox where users can do, within reason, what they want.

Wi-Fi 6, just like the version before it, will continue to use exclusively unlicensed spectrum. However, in addition to the 5 GHz band that was used for Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6 will also use the 2.4 GHz band. Wi-Fi 6 also continues to operate in the 60GHz band and the 900 MHz (HaLow), which offers longer range and lower power connectivity for low bandwidth IoT applications.

Further, the development of Wi-Fi 6E delivered an additional 1020 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band, which, again, is unlicensed.

Mobile cellular networks, on the other hand, have historically always operated on licensed spectrum. When it comes to 5G, specifically, it might be true that major U.S. carriers have different spectrum portfolios made up of high-, mid- and low-band spectrum, but they are all still making use of only licensed spectrum, with the exception of Licensed Assisted Access where operators aggregate unlicensed 5 GHz with licensed spectrum.

5G NR-U and CBRS

However, there have been a number of efforts to free up unlicensed spectrum for cellular, one of which is 5G NR in unlicensed spectrum (NR-U). When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made the 6 GHz band available to Wi-Fi, they also opened it up to 5G NR-U, which is being finalized for inclusion in 3GPP Release 16.

Then there is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum. CBRS is band of radio-frequency spectrum from 3.5GHz to 3.7GHz that the FCC has designated for sharing among three tiers of users: incumbent users, priority licensees and generally authorized, which is unlicensed.

With access to this newly opened band, enterprises can deploy LTE and 5G private cellular networks in shared spectrum, abolishing their dependency on spectrum owned by carriers.

How will you manage your network?

Finally, as networks become more complicated, it’s important to consider how and by whome your new network will be managed. A typical enterprise already has an IT team that is well-versed in Wi-Fi network management, but that is most likely not the case when it comes to a private 5G network.

And so, if an enterprise needs to expand the footprint of their Wi-Fi network or even upgrade their equipment to be Wi-Fi 6 capable, its existing in-house workers are well-equipment to handle the management of the new network.

When it comes to cellular, however, management is an entirely different animal.

But those in the cellular business know this, of course. Therefore, vendors are providing private network management as a service so that enterprise customers don’t have to worry about developing an IT team that knows how to manage a 5G network, and can instead focus on their primary business, whatever that may be.

“One way to approach that is through channel partners,” explained Mark Bole, the CEO of Quortus, said in a previous interview with RCR Wireless.“The other is that we can provide it as a service, so the end enterprise doesn’t have to worry about the capital expense cost or how to build up a team that knows how to manage a 5G core network. This way it can fit into their business model on an operation expense basis rather than an upfront investment.”

Channel partners, often in the form of system integrators, act as middlemen between the network provider and the customer, and they have a detailed understanding the specific industry in question and the needs and requirements of the specific end enterprise.  

“We are seeing everything from small to major system integrators and other channel partners being able to provide that level of competence themselves to assist the enterprise,” Bole continued. “This helps enterprise move into the world of private networks without having to come up a huge learning curve and a huge risk mitigation challenge.”

While most enterprises aren’t prepared to take all of this management on in-house and can’t afford to hire new staff to handle it — especially without having proved the ROI of the private network — some larger ones can and as a result, are establishing a real competence around private networking.

In summation, in most cases, private 5G networks be offered as a service by communication service providers to enterprises or will be managed by service providers on behalf of enterprises, while some large enterprises may operate a 5G network themselves.

However, no matter the route taken, it is critical that enterprises integrate the private 5G network into existing IT systems, industrial IoT platforms and control systems in a similar way as they do currently with wired network infrastructure to ensure maximum efficiency.

For more information on private cellular wireless networks in the enterprise and how they compare to Wi-Fi and public networks, check out the complete report.

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