Key Facts About the Roles of Wi-Fi 6, 5G in IoT, Edge Era

eWEEK DATA POINTS RESOURCE PAGE: The latest iterations of both network technologies will play increasingly complementary roles, but enterprises will still lean toward Wi-Fi 6 for their in-building connectivity.


Enterprise IT is quickly becoming a data-centric and widely distributed environment that includes the soon-to-be tens of billions of connected, intelligent devices. This will make up the internet of things (IoT) and generate petabytes of data, multiple public and hybrid clouds and modern applications using such technologies as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data and advanced analytics.

Central to all of this are wireless networks, the connective tissue that support all these devices, move all that data, link all those clouds and meet the diverse demands for speed, capacity and latency of those modern workloads.

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Into this universe come both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, the latest iterations of the Wi-Fi and cellular protocols. Designed to handle the fast-growing numbers of devices and users and all the demands that come from an increasingly wide range of new and emerging high-bandwidth and time-sensitive applications, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G both include significant upgrades in speed, capacity, throughput, reliability and connection density.

While Wi-Fi and WAN (cellular) networks conventionally have played different roles–Wi-Fi in local, highly mobile networks and cellular on a more macro level–going forward, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will work together even better than current Wi-Fi and LTE networks do to provide enhanced mobility, capacity and data rates, which will be important for enterprises in this increasingly mobile world.

In this eWEEK Data Points article, Stuart Strickland, a Distinguished Technologist on the CTO team at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, offers excellent industry information about the differences between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G as well as their complementary relationship as the technologies enter the mainstream market.

Data Point No. 1: Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are Complementary

They are among a number of complementary technologies, also including Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee, that serve to connect all of the growing number of users, things and applications and drive actionable insights from them. Because the 5G architecture decouples services at the cellular core from the specific Radio Access Network (RAN), these services can be delivered over any number of front ends--Wi-Fi, LTE or even a fixed wired network. Given the favorable economics and high performance of Wi-Fi 6, many service providers will choose Wi-Fi as the indoor radio front end for their 5G systems as an alternative to either Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) or small cells. 

Data Point No. 2: Staying in Their Lanes

Cellular networks have traditionally excelled at delivering macro area coverage and supporting high-speed handoffs. While 5G introduces new features that are designed to make it more attractive to the enterprise than 4G LTE has previously been, Wi-Fi will remain the more attractive choice for most enterprise applications for a number of reasons. For example, while 5G claims to provide greater speeds, this advancement depends on bandwidth only available in millimeter wave bands, which will not penetrate indoors and would require much denser and more costly deployments. 5G’s ability to lower latency is enabled by moving resources closer to the network edge than centralized 4G LTE networks, but enterprise applications that require low latency already have been combining edge computing with Wi-Fi networks for a long time.

Features such as network slicing are designed to make 5G networks more flexible for the enterprise than the monolithic 4G LTE networks have been, but Wi-Fi networks have long partitioned users and network resources in ways that allow enterprises to customize the networks to their specific needs. Meanwhile, carriers are continuing to upgrade 4G networks with LTE-Advanced and LTE Pro technologies and may be reluctant to bear the costs of new 5G networks or sacrifice limited mid-band spectrum currently dedicated to 4G if the performance gap between them are limited in most use cases.

In addition to the above points, when we consider new innovations such as uplink and downlink orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), transmit beamforming, 1024-quadrature amplitude modulation mode (QAM) and target wake time (TWT), the innovations of Wi-Fi 6 have been responsive to enterprise performance requirements of high-density local area service and will continue to be the choice of enterprises in those environments. But Wi-Fi has never been a global service and will continue to provide local pockets of high-quality coverage while some mixture of 4G and 5G cell towers remains the choice of operators to deliver coverage over wider areas.

For the record: Beamforming, or spatial filtering, is a signal-processing technique used in sensor arrays for directional signal transmission or reception.

Data Point No. 3: Let’s Talk Dollars

While there has been some talk in the industry about the potential of 5G to replace Wi-Fi as the primary tool for delivering in-building access, the reality is that cost plays a key role in everything enterprises do. Replacing Wi-Fi with 5G within the enterprise would be a costly move for many reasons.

  • First, cellular base stations are several times more expensive than Wi-Fi access points (WAPs), with a key reason being the embedded cost of licensing cellular technology.
  • Second, supporting multiple operators means deploying multiple layers of 5G small cells vs. a single neutral host layer of Wi-Fi.
  • Third, client cellular devices themselves are more expensive, both because the cost of the hardware (for the same reasons the infrastructure is more expensive) but also in terms of subscription fees. That’s of particular concern to enterprises that need to connect large numbers of IoT devices and sensors.
  • Fourth, to achieve comparable performance to Wi-Fi 6, 5G would need to operate in millimeter wave bands, requiring a more dense deployment to build a similar coverage area. Unlike 4G, the flavors of 5G that deliver the best throughput do not provide good mobility.
  • Finally, a transition from Wi-Fi to 5G cellular networks in the enterprise would require either a parallel investment in infrastructure supporting both new technologies or an immediate upgrade of all devices, since cellular networks are not backwards compatible.

Data Point No. 4: Backward Compatibility

With huge investments in legacy network components and devices, it is important for enterprises to be able to upgrade and depreciate those assets independently of their transition of network infrastructures to support modern demands. This is an area in which the design philosophies of the IEEE (for Wi-Fi) and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) (for cellular) fundamentally differ. With each new generation of Wi-Fi, the IEEE has been committed to supporting all legacy devices, ensuring that those devices are able to connect to the new infrastructure just as they did with the older ones.

On the other hand, each new generation of cellular technology starts with a clean slate, which means engineers working on new cellular technologies are unencumbered by the past, but also that new 5G networks won’t support any previous generation of devices. The installed base of 4G clients will not work on new 5G networks. Spectrum committed to 4G networks is not available to 5G. While new 5G devices will be able to create an illusion of continuity by using 4G LTE networks where 5G connectivity is not available, this is accomplished at the additional cost of supporting multiple modems within each device.

Data Point No. 5: A Cleaner Handoff

Although we all depend on both Wi-Fi and cellular networks and have grown accustomed to moving back and forth between them throughout our day, poor mobility between Wi-Fi and cellular networks has been a common experience. Loss of cellular coverage while entering a building during a mobile conference call typically leads to an interruption of service unless the user has had the foresight to hop on a Wi-Fi network. These disruptions will be resolved with Wi-Fi 6 and 5G.  5G core network specifications introduce a more sophisticated way of communicating with Wi-Fi networks, even those that are managed by private entities rather than carriers. Wi-Fi networks will be able to share much more information with 5G cellular networks, such as the perimeter of coverage, minimum data rates, maximum latency and their current load, enabling the cellular network to make intelligent closed-loop decisions about handover and offload. The idea is to make the Wi-Fi 6 LANs appear to the cellular network as another node of an integrated network so these transitions can take place without any user intervention or knowledge.

Data Point No. 6: The Need for Speed … and Capacity

Where prior generations of Wi-Fi typically could only support a few scores of devices on a single AP, Wi-Fi 6 will enable more than 1,000 simultaneous connections--a crucial factor in the IoT era, where there will be not only more devices but more kinds of devices to manage. 5G also will support more devices than 4G, but it is more constrained in its capacity than Wi-Fi, unless it makes the coverage and mobility tradeoff of using the high-frequency millimeter waves.

Data Point No. 7: High Security

One key area where Wi-Fi 6 and 5G both offer improvements over their predecessors is security. 5G offers security improvements over LTE, including multiple authentication methods, better key management and traffic encryption. Additionally, network slicing will drive more granular access control. Wi-Fi 6 delivers improved security over prior generations through the new WPA3 and Enhanced Open security standards, which provide stronger encryption and simpler IoT security configuration. Enhanced Open complements the security protection WPA3 delivers by improving data privacy while maintaining ease-of-use in open public networks, such as local coffee shops, airports and stadiums, where connections will be encrypted without requiring user authentication.

Wi-Fi and cellular have evolved to be the key drivers of an increasingly mobile world. With the rise of IoT, the cloud and edge computing, that connectivity is more important than ever. In this environment, while different in many respects, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will play complementary roles that together will create a more complete picture of the omnipresent, secure and reliable connectivity that will be needed in a world of tens of billions of connected things. This is where applications and data are accessed and stored in myriad places and workloads will transfer seamlessly, and emerging technologies like AI and big data analytics will change how business is done.

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