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Next-gen wireless options: Wi-Fi 6, 5G or private 5G?

Mar 10, 20216 mins

As Wi-Fi and 5G technology improve to support higher bandwidth and more users per access point, enterprises need to look deeper to decide which best meets their needs.

wireless network - internet of things [iot]
Credit: Thinkstock

One of the great debates in networking has been whether to use wired connectivity—which brings speed—or wireless—which delivers mobility. Recent versions of Wi-Fi deliver speeds comparable to wired, removing this debate. Wired connections are still faster, but for most user applications, including video, there is no experience difference. Looking ahead, next-generation wireless will be well North of 1Gbps, making it a no-brainer to use wireless.

The next big decision: What kind of wireless?

In the past, there was only one option, and that was Wi-Fi. Now there is another option coming into play, and that’s 5G. Not 5G like the kind one has attached to your mobile phone, but private 5G used within enterprise environments.

Recent advancements in Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) have made using 5G a reality, which would enable companies to bring 5G services into buildings. Simultaneously, Wi-Fi has gone through a big evolutionary step with Wi-Fi 6, which has major improvements over Wi-Fi 5 that make it more reliable.

This creates a debate about what an organization’s next-generation wireless should be. There’s no right answer, but it’s important that network engineers understand the pros and cons of each solution and how they could be used.

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 is a mature technology and includes products from some well-established networking vendors. Gartner has 18 in its most recent Magic Quadrant with four (Extreme, Juniper, Cisco and HPE Aruba) ranked as leaders. Wi-Fi 6 was a huge leap forward from its predecessor by adding features from the world of cellular, such as OFDMA and MU-MIMO, to improve spectrum quality.

The reality is that while these are marked improvements, they don’t solve a fundamental issue: Wi-Fi relies on a shared, unlicensed spectrum, which makes it susceptible to interference and saturated bandwidth. This is why no matter how good a site survey may have been or how carefully the architectural plan is there will always be issues in demanding environments.  Wi-Fi 6 won’t solve the common problem of working away on a Wi-Fi network when suddenly things stop working well. This won’t happen as often with Wi-Fi 6, but it will continue.

The main benefit of Wi-Fi is that it’s very low cost, particularly on the client side where Wi-Fi-enabled laptops can cost as little as a couple of hundred bucks. Also, many IoT devices support Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi 6 should remain the wireless network of choice for non-mission critical apps because it’s nearly ubiquitous, but the unpredictable nature of it means IT pros should still be wary of using it in critical areas such as manufacturing, logistics/warehousing or healthcare.

5G as a service

Organizations can purchase 5G from the likes of service providers and have them bring the service in building. This is certainly the simplest way of doing it but does open the door to a number of other issues.

One of them is coverage area. No service provider offers 5G everywhere, meaning that a widely distributed organization would likely need to contract with more than one provider to get all the coverage it needs.

A bigger issue is data ownership. When 5G is purchased as a telco service, the data goes over the service provider network into its core and is then routed to the Internet back to the customer. This is in stark contrast to enterprise on-premises networks where all the data is kept local and can be scanned, analyzed and stored by the company. So, an event venue that could collect and analyze data from it’s network if the network is owned by the venue itself would lose that data if it’s routed through a service-provider’s network.

One last concern with going this route is the customer service you can expect from this group of providers. Imagine that one is providing 5G networking of your factory equipment and the network goes down, grinding the production line to a halt. Would you feel comfortable that they’d fix it fast enough? Given the mission-critical nature of wireless to businesses, poor customer service isn’t something to gamble on.  

Build your own with carrier 5G equipment

All of the carrier 5G networks are built on gear made by a handful of vendors. Gartner recently released a Magic Quadrant for 5G network infrastructure providers specifically for communication service providers.  The three in the leader’s quadrant are Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei, with ZTE in close proximity to the upper right. These vendors might make sense for the biggest of the big enterprises that have networks as big as some small mobile operators, but for 99% of the world, they aren’t a viable option.

While the benefit of using one of the carrier-grade vendors is that their technology is tried and tested, the downsides are significant. Their equipment was designed for massive-scale provider networks, not enterprises. Using it would be like deploying carrier grade core routers to build a corporate WAN; it could be done, but it’s complete overkill.

Also, the complexity level of carrier-grade 5G equipment is significant, so much so that many service providers themselves wind up hiring professional services to get the equipment up and running. And some operators will outsource the entire operations of the network because of complexity. For example, Verizon recently signed a $700M outsourcing deal with Infosys.  Vodafone recently took a similar approach outsourcing its 5G buildout and operations to EDS and IBM.

Enterprise-class 5G infrastructure

Recently, 5G equipment designed for enterprises to deploy and manage with the ease of Wi-Fi has come on the scene. For instance, the startup Celona offers such a solution that HPE Aruba is reselling. As time goes on, other mainstream Wi-Fi vendors are likely to build or buy their way into enterprise-class 5G.

The benefit of this option is that it provides the quality and reliability of 5G and enables the network engineering team to deploy, manage and operate it like it’s Wi-Fi. The downside is the cost of 5G clients. While a low-end laptop that supports Wi-Fi costs just a few hundred dollars, a low-priced 5G-enabled laptop cost $1500 or more.

Good 5G use cases

While the cost of private 5G makes it too expensive to deploy everywhere, it is an excellent option for mission-critical environments where Wi-Fi currently is not used. Hospitals that want to connect medical equipment and not worry about the flakiness of Wi-Fi should consider it. Manufacturing organizations that have avoided Wi-Fi  so far should consider private 5G to eliminate the need to continually upgrade cabling.

The optimal wireless deployment would be a mix of Wi-Fi 6 for general workers without the need for highly reliable network bandwidth and guest users. That should be augmented with enterprise-class private 5G for more demanding environments. This lets organizations leverage the strengths of both but also spend budget wisely. Over time the cost of private 5G is likely to fall and as that happens, enterprises can look at expanding their 5G footprint and displacing some or all of their Wi-Fi networks in their critical environments. But for now, it makes the most sense to use both.


Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, and provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers.

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