5G will augment Wi-Fi, not replace it

Jeff Lipton, vice president of strategy and corporate development at Aruba, adds a dose of reality to the 5G hype, discussing how it and Wi-Fi will work together and how to maximize the value of both.

5G will augment Wi-Fi, not replace it
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There’s arguably no technology topic that’s currently hotter than 5G. It was a major theme of the most recent Mobile World Congress show and has reared its head in other events such as Enterprise Connect and almost every vendor event I attend.

Some vendors have positioned 5G as a panacea to all network problems and predict it will eradicate all other forms of networking. Views like that are obviously extreme, but I do believe that 5G will have an impact on the networking industry and is something that network engineers should be aware of.

To help bring some realism to the 5G hype, I recently interviewed Jeff Lipton, vice president of strategy and corporate development at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard company, as I know HPE has been deeply involved in the evolution of both 5G and Wi-Fi.

Zeus Kerravala: 5G is being touted as the "next big thing." Do you see it that way?

Jeff Lipton: The next big thing is connecting "things" and generating actionable insights and context from those things. 5G is one of the technologies that serve this trend. Wi-Fi 6 is another — so are edge compute, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). These all are important, and they each have a place.

Do you see 5G eclipsing Wi-Fi in the enterprise?

headshot jlipton aruba Aruba

Jeff Lipton, VP of strategy and corporate development, Aruba

Lipton: No. 5G, like all cellular access, is appropriate if you need macro-area coverage and high-speed handoffs. But it’s not ideal for most enterprise applications, where you generally don’t need these capabilities. From a performance standpoint, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are roughly equal on most metrics, including throughput, latency, reliability, and connection density. Where they aren’t close is economics, where Wi-Fi is far better. I don’t think many customers would be willing to trade Wi-Fi for 5G unless they need macro coverage or high-speed handoffs.

Can Wi-Fi and 5G coexist? How would an enterprise use 5G and Wi-Fi together?

Lipton: Wi-Fi and 5G can and should be complementary. The 5G architecture decouples the cellular core and Radio Access Network (RAN). Consequently, Wi-Fi can be the enterprise radio front end and connect tightly with a 5G core. Since the economics of Wi-Fi — especially Wi-Fi 6 — are favorable and performance is extremely good, we envision many service providers using Wi-Fi as the radio front end for their 5G systems where it makes sense, as an alternative to Distributed Antenna (DAS) and small-cell systems.

If a business were considering moving to 5G only, how would this be done and how practical is it? 

Lipton: To use 5G for primary in-building access, a customer would need to upgrade their network and virtually all of their devices. 5G provides good coverage outdoors, but cellular signals can’t reliably penetrate buildings. And this problem will become worse with 5G, which partially relies on higher frequency radios. So service providers will need a way to provide indoor coverage. To provide this coverage, they propose deploying DAS or small-cell systems — paid for by the end customer. The customers would then connect their devices directly to these cellular systems and pay a service component for each device.

There are several problems with this approach. First, DAS and small-cell systems are significantly more expensive than Wi-Fi networks. And the cost doesn’t stop with the network. Every device would need to have a 5G cellular modem, which costs tens of dollars wholesale and usually over a hundred dollars to an end user. Since few, if any MacBooks, PCs, printers or AppleTVs today have 5G modems, these devices would need to be upgraded. I don’t believe many enterprises would be willing to pay this additional cost and upgrade most of their equipment for an unclear benefit.

Are economics a factor in the 5G versus Wi-Fi debate?

Lipton: Economics is always a factor. Let’s focus the conversation on in-building enterprise applications, since this is the use case some carriers intend to target with 5G. We’ve already mentioned that upgrading to 5G would require enterprises to deploy expensive DAS or small-cell systems for in-building coverage, upgrade virtually all of their equipment to contain 5G modems, and pay service contracts for each of these devices. It’s also important to understand 5G cellular networks and DAS systems operate over licensed spectrum, which is analogous to a private highway. Service providers paid billions of dollars for this spectrum, and this expense needs to be monetized and embedded in service costs. So, from both deployment and lifecycle perspectives, Wi-Fi economics are favorable to 5G.

Are there any security implications of 5G versus Wi-Fi? 

Lipton: Cellular technologies are perceived by some to be more secure than Wi-Fi, but that’s not true. LTE is relatively secure, but it also has weak points. For example, LTE is vulnerable to a range of attacks, including data interception and device tracking, according to researchers at Purdue and the University of Iowa. 5G improves upon LTE security with multiple authentication methods and better key management.

Wi-Fi security isn’t standing still either and continues to advance. Of course, Wi-Fi implementations that do not follow best practices, such as those without even basic password protection, are not optimal. But those configured with proper access controls and passwords are highly secure. With new standards — specifically, WPA3 and Enhanced Open — Wi-Fi network security has improved even further.

It’s also important to keep in mind that enterprises have made enormous investments in security and compliance solutions tailored to their specific needs. With cellular networks, including 5G, enterprises lose the ability to deploy their chosen security and compliance solutions, as well as most visibility into traffic flows. While future versions of 5G will offer high-levels of customization with a feature called network slicing, enterprises would still lose the level of security and compliance customization they currently need and have.

Any parting thoughts to add to the discussion around 5G versus Wi-Fi?

Lipton: The debate around Wi-Fi versus 5G misses the point. They each have their place, and they are in many ways complementary. The Wi-Fi and 5G markets both will grow, driven by the need to connect and analyze a growing number of things. If a customer needs macro coverage or high-speed handoffs and can pay the additional cost for these capabilities, 5G makes sense.

5G also could be a fit for certain industrial use cases where customers require physical network segmentation. But for the vast majority of enterprise customers, Wi-Fi will continue to prove its value as a reliable, secure, and cost-effective wireless access technology, as it does today.

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