5G and Wi-Fi 6 – friends or foes? (Hint: Super-friends!)
One could be forgiven for assuming that two new wireless communications standards, 5G and Wi-Fi 6, are about to fight it out in a Battle Royale. We’ve seen it before, when competing mobile standards have fought for marketplace dominance.
On the face of it, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 would seem to be headed toward a similar marketplace showdown by virtue of their similarities. Thanks to the unrelenting need for more bandwidth as well as a proliferation of IoT devices, both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 were created with many of the same features — high-speed data transmission, ultra-low latency and massive device density (amongst other features).
But once you begin to understand the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6, it becomes clear that far from being competitors, the two wireless standards are very complementary. In fact, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have been designed to work in harmony, coexist as co-equal connectivity technologies and complement one another where each one has a natural advantage over the other, particularly when it comes to offering support for the Internet of Things (IoT). This is especially important for businesses operating in edge environments, far from data centres, but where connectivity and data processing needs are growing at exponential rates.
“Once you begin to understand the differences between 5G and Wi-Fi 6, it becomes clear that far from being competitors, the two wireless standards are very complementary”
5G and Wi-Fi 6: Where they differ
5G, as its name suggests, is a fifth-generation standard for mobile networks. The standard offers theoretical 20 Gbps downlink and 10 Gbps uplink speeds, compared to a maximum 100/50 Mbps for 4G LTE. Other 5G features include ultra-low latency and network slicing, which lets operators “slice” 5G bandwidth into discrete partitions with different speed, latency and tailored QoS levels.
In terms of device density, the 5G standard calls for at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometre. Many of those connections will be low-bandwidth IoT devices used in edge environments, which could be anything from an autonomous vehicle to a wind farm. According to Gartner, 75% of enterprise data will be generated in such edge environments by the year 2025.
Wi-Fi 6 (otherwise known as IEEE 802.11ax) is the latest iteration of the Wi-Fi networking protocol, with performance matching or even exceeding 5G in some dimensions. A single wireless access point can support thousands of simultaneous clients (1024 per radio to be exact), whether voice calls or IoT connections, and can manage spectrum far more efficiently than earlier Wi-Fi standards, including the ability to provide connectivity to devices with disparate requirements, as is standard in IoT scenarios. Considering most enterprises will have multiple access points in a single facility, device density can scale as the number of connections grows.
While the performance profile of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are on par with each other, there are some major differences, too.
First, these two communications technologies are suited to different types of environments. Wi-Fi 6, like earlier generations of Wi-Fi, is better suited to provide connectivity at enterprise locations and large indoor venues, with data able to reach users and devices despite the presence of walls, windows, and other physical barriers. Over the span of decades, this has led Wi-Fi to become a ubiquitous connectivity for several types of devices, including cellphones.
The wireless portion of 5G, called 5G NR (5G New Radio), on the other hand, has been designed to rely on very high frequency spectrum to achieve higher speeds. While this design makes it ideal for outdoor environments where there are minor or no physical barriers, it inherently is more difficult for its signal to penetrate buildings or enterprise indoor locations without the need to install equipment that’s substantially more expensive than the already existing or readily available Wi-Fi 6.
It’s not just a question of getting through exterior walls and roofs — offices and other types of commercial buildings are filled with objects that can interfere with signals, including furniture, stairwells, HVAC systems, machinery, vehicles, and inventory. Wi-Fi 6 has been battle-tested to handle the very real challenges with RF coverage and quality. It also carries a second set of advantages associated with the growth of IoT – it has been designed to be an umbrella technology that is not only backwards compatible with previous Wi-Fi standards, but it also provides connectivity to devices that are based on other IoT protocols like BLE/Bluetooth, Ethernet, Zigbee, Thread, etc.
For IoT, this means a myriad of sensors, controllers and any other type of devices at enterprise locations that natively rely on any of these communications protocols are now able to connect and share data through a local enterprise network by leveraging Wi-Fi 6-enabled access points:
- A factory may contain thousands of IoT devices, from robots lining a production line to valves and sensors used to regulate humidity levels.
- Older building equipment will still be able to securely connect to the edge infrastructure
- Retail stores may use video data of clientele traffic through their aisles to determine consumer behaviour or provide specific services and advertising based on their location
Handoffs back-and-forth from Wi-Fi 6 and 5G
As 5G enterprise services are released, Wi-Fi 6-enabled access points (already available) grow in share, and businesses continue to build out their edge infrastructures, enterprises won’t have to see themselves in the conundrum of choosing one vs. the other – in fact, you can see Wi-FI 6 serve as way to expand 5G use cases into the enterprise setting. The reality is enterprises will have the ability to select the connectivity technology that best suits their needs, depending on the environment, the type of data workload/application at hand, location and degree of mobility of devices sharing data and context, as well as cost considerations. In the end, the two standards have been designed to work with each other to deliver a seamless connectivity experience across networks.
For example, a manufacturer of electronic components might depend on a robust local network powered by edge compute and Wi-Fi 6 to carry out the following tasks:
- Offload data at specific intervals from an IoT mesh network around a production line, and analyse it locally in near real-time using edge compute.
- Deliver ultra-low latency into buildings where cellular signal is not optimised.
- Process video feeds and data from safety systems at the plant, and alert managers of potential problems as they arise.
- Connect workers on-site carrying hand scanners to track raw materials arriving at the factory, and automatically updating ERP and ordering systems to hit just-in-time (JIT) performance targets.
- As components come out of the production line, use Wi-Fi connected video cameras and ML applications to perform automated QA.
In contrast, in use cases where the area of operation is wider than the range offered by Wi-Fi, or users/devices originating data are in constant mobility, 5G might be a better fit, or a combination of both, depending which network offers the best quality of service. Consider an example from the logistics industry, from a loading dock:
- Shipping containers are off-loaded and stored at extensive outdoor areas and are moved around constantly, just as employees, vendors and any of the operational assets (forklifts, trucks, loading cranes, vehicles, etc.), making location monitoring a safety and security critical issue
- Video recording for safety, security and record-keeping is crucial, but where local area network connectivity is not be readily available or with the quality required for real-time analytics
- Use cases where you can insert 5G as a wireless WAN connection for the Wi-Fi infrastructure.
- Visual remote guidance for maintenance and asset repairs where Wi-Fi connectivity is out of range would have to rely on cellular connectivity
In all of the use cases above, the one constant is intelligence at the edge, ensuring devices are accessing the best network connectivity available and transitioning seamlessly when needed. In these examples, it means when manufacturer’s delivery trucks leave the plant and drive beyond Wi-Fi range won’t switch off. Rather, there will be a seamless hand off to a 5G network, completely transparent to the end user and the truck itself, without any data loss.
5G and Wi-Fi 6 are friends, not foes
In summary, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 were envisioned to solve the same marketplace needs and increasing requirements around bandwidth, lower latency, and massive density for billions of IoT devices. Even though the standards are native to different types of environments, they were designed to work in harmony when hand offs occur. These two technologies, far from being rivals, are super-friends that can help businesses solve real-world problems and create opportunities for new types of innovation at the intelligent edge.
As Enterprises continue to explore what 5G means to them – no matter where they are in their thinking process – Aruba Wi-Fi 6 is the first step in this deployment because it serves as the on ramp to enable upcoming 5G services in the enterprise. Further, Enterprises upgrading their wireless infrastructure to Wi-Fi 6 will get to keep existing security policies in place, management capabilities, the ability to invest in and deploy third-party services.
You can also read this analyst opinion paper by Moor Insights & Strategy on the role that HPE plays in delivering intelligent connectivity for Manufacturing.