5G is a cellular service, and Wi-Fi 6 is a short-range wireless access technology. Each technology has its own characteristics, making it play its own advantages in specific corporate roles.
5G cellular and Wi-Fi 6 who will win in enterprise applications? Although the propaganda is very powerful in this respect, the reality is that the two are largely complementary, and some applications overlap, and an interesting competitive environment will be formed around 2020.
5G potential in enterprise applications
5G’s commitment to enterprise users is faster connection speeds and lower latency. Cellular technology uses licensed spectrum, which largely eliminates the interference that can occur with unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum. Like current 4G LTE technology, 5G can be provided by cellular wireless carriers or as a private network.
The 5G architecture requires more RF access points and may be affected by poor indoor connectivity or even no connectivity. Therefore, the average enterprise should evaluate current 4G and future 5G services for its PCs, routers and other devices. The deployment of indoor microcells, repeaters and distributed antennas helps solve indoor 5G service problems. Like 4G, the best enterprise 5G applications are for real mobile connectivity, such as public safety vehicles, as well as non-indoor office environments such as mining, oil and gas exploration, transportation, agriculture, and some manufacturing.
In addition to extensive mobility, 5G also has the advantages of authentication and deployment speed when roaming, which may be required to provide WAN connectivity to mobile office or retail sites. 5G has the ability to offload data streams with data congestion such as real-time video. As the 5G standard matures, the technology will further improve its low-power IoT connectivity.
In the next four to five years, 5G will gradually be launched in major cities and certain regions; 4G technology will continue for several years. Enterprise users need new devices, dongle and routers to connect to 5G services. For example, the Apple iPhone is expected to support 5G by 2020, and IoT devices require some cellular compatibility to connect to 5G.
Doyle Research expects 5G’s promised 1Gbps and higher bandwidth to have a significant impact on the SD-WAN market. 4G LTE has made cellular services the dominant WAN link. 5G may be more cost-competitive and cheaper than many wired WAN services (eg, MPLS and the Internet). 5G provides enterprise WAN administrators with more choices, providing greater bandwidth to their branch sites and remote users, and may replace MPLS over time.
The potential of enterprise Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi is almost everywhere, connecting mobile laptops, tablets and other devices to the corporate network. Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is the latest version of Wi-Fi with higher speeds, lower latency, more aggregated bandwidth, and advanced traffic management. Although Wi-Fi 6 and 5G (both based on Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) have some similarities, they are less susceptible to interference, require less power (expanding device battery life), and improve Spectral efficiency.
As is typical with Wi-Fi, many manufacturers currently offer an early vendor-specific version of Wi-Fi 6. The Wi-Fi Alliance plans to certify Wi-Fi 6 standard equipment by 2020. Most companies will upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 based on a standard access point lifecycle of three years or so, and if they have special performance/delay requirements, they can upgrade faster.
Wi-Fi access points are still subject to interference, and it is difficult to design and locate access points to provide proper coverage. Enterprise LAN administrators will continue to need the tools and partners provided by vendors to configure the best Wi-Fi coverage for their enterprise. The Wi-Fi 6 solution must be integrated with the wired campus infrastructure. Wi-Fi providers should do a better job of providing unified network management across wireless and wireline solutions for enterprises.
Need cable back
For both technologies, wireless and wired network infrastructure combine to provide end-to-end high-speed communications. In enterprise campuses and large branch offices, Wi-Fi is typically associated with wired Ethernet switches. Some devices are connected to the switch via a cable, while others are connected via Wi-Fi, and the laptop can use both methods simultaneously. Connect to Wi-Fi access points via Ethernet within the enterprise and connect to the WAN or the Internet via fiber optics.
The 5G architecture uses fiber optics extensively to connect the distributed RF access network back to the 5G core network. Fiber is often required to provide the high bandwidth required to connect 5G endpoints to SaaS-based applications, providing real-time video and high-speed Internet access. Dedicated 5G networks must also meet high-speed wired connectivity requirements.
When the phone switches between 5G and Wi-Fi 6, corporate IT managers need to resolve the switching problem. These issues can affect performance and user satisfaction. Several standards organizations are working to develop standards to promote better interoperability between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. With the convergence of the Wi-Fi 6 architecture and the 5G architecture, the mobile experience between the cellular network and the Wi-Fi network will become more seamless.
5G and Wi-Fi 6 disputes related to location, applications and devices
In an enterprise environment, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G compete with each other in specific situations, depending on location, application, and device type. IT managers should carefully evaluate their current and future connectivity needs. Wi-Fi will continue to dominate the indoor environment, while cellular networks will win widespread outdoor coverage.
Some overlaps occur in stadiums, hospitals, and other large venues where many users compete for bandwidth. Government applications, including smart cities, can be applied to both Wi-Fi and cellular networks. Healthcare facilities have many distributed medical devices and users that need to be networked. Large distributed manufacturing environments have similar characteristics. Emerging IoT deployments are probably the most interesting “competitive” environment with many overlapping application scenarios.
Advice to IT leaders
While wireless technology allows them to be fused, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are fundamentally different networks—both of which play a role in enterprise connectivity. Enterprise IT leaders should focus on how Wi-Fi and cellular networks complement each other. Wi-Fi continues to be an indoor technology for connecting PCs and laptops, transferring mobile and tablet data, and enabling some IoT connections.
The development of 4G LTE to 5G will still be a true mobile technology for connecting mobile phones and tablets, an option for PC connectivity (via dongle), and an increasing popularity in connecting certain IoT devices. 5G WAN links will become increasingly standard as a backup measure to improve SD-WAN reliability and become the main link for telecommuting.
Lee Doyle is the lead analyst at Doyle Research, providing customer-centric, targeted analytics for the development of intelligent networks. He has 25 years of experience in the IT, networking and telecommunications markets and has extensive analytical experience.