It’s impossible to avoid comparing cellular with Wi-Fi and discussing their complicated relation, especially in the advent of 5G and Wi-Fi 6. Check out these four points worth considering before joining the discussion about enterprise wireless connectivity.
Point for consideration #1: Wi-Fi and 5G are complementary, competitive, and convergent – all at the same time!
There’s an age-old question that accompanies the discussion about 5G and Wi-Fi: which technology will prevail over the other? First, we need to understand their functionality and purpose.
Private cellular is suitable for wide areas, outdoor spaces, industrial devices, and mobility. There are specific verticals where 5G really shines, like energy & utilities, transportation, agriculture, and mining. Whereas, Wi-Fi is often best suited for indoor and small outdoor areas, especially for high density, bulk data, and ubiquitous device support.
Some will say that Wi-Fi is simply too ubiquitous and too cheap to replace. But the truth is, there’s a grey area in between where both technologies will fit and for most environments, the question is not “which technology should I choose,” but instead “do I need to add 5G to supplement my existing Ethernet and Wi-Fi networking infrastructure?”.
In that vein, the “convergence” obviously doesn’t mean that cellular and Wi-Fi will become one. However, managing and operating both wireless technologies most probably will become more similar and unified over time.
Point for consideration #2: Spectrum options
Unlicensed spectrum is a bit like open-source software. They’re both low cost and accessible, which drives adoption. Eventually unlicensed wireless, like open-source software, is embedded in everything. Once it becomes universal, it is very difficult to displace, and thus, score one for unlicensed Wi-Fi.
Conversely, cellular is reliable and predictable in large part because of the protections afforded by spectrum licenses. But, spectrum licenses are restricted to deep-pocketed mobile operators capable of wielding that spectrum power to offer reliable services to enterprises – score one for licensed cellular.
A legitimate wild card is private/local licensing approaches like CBRS. It may not be enough spectrum to solve all your wireless problems, but it is certainly enough to open new “hotspot” solutions to enterprises struggling with the range, determinism, or mobility shortcomings of Wi-Fi for specific devices and applications. Score one for locally-licensed cellular (where available).
Point for consideration #3: The costs
In terms of devices, Wi-Fi keeps winning with cellular because of its cost. Since the client device cellular chips and radio components are far more expensive than Wi-Fi, consumer device makers are more likely to choose BLE and Wi-Fi over 5G to improve pricing, market acceptance, and margins.
As far as the management and cloud license costs are concerned, some vendor packaging will come around and drive down the cost of 5G infrastructure to make it comparable enough to Wi-Fi. In other words, 5G costs will decrease over time, but not enough. And by then, we’re talking about 6G, and Wi-Fi is still ubiquitous.
Point for consideration #4: Apples and oranges
Comparing Wi-Fi with cellular is absolutely understandable. They are categorically similar technologies, despite the aforementioned differences. However, juxtaposing 5G with Wi-Fi 6 specifically is a bit like comparing an entire season of a TV show with a single episode of another.
Wi-Fi has always released and adopted new standards in 3-5 year increments. And typically, there are two phases of feature adoption (often called wave1 and wave2) for each standard. Cellular has a similar incremental process, known as 3GPP releases, which define both new and iterative batches of cellular technology.
The problem is that the marketing packages together a series of 3GPP releases (like Releases 15-19) and labels them collectively as 5G. The numerous generations of Wi-Fi releases are never lumped together, such as if the Wi-Fi Alliance were to take Wi-Fi 6, 6E, 7, and 8 and package them together into a decade-long raft of wireless progress. If we’re going to make the comparison at all, we should compare Wi-Fi 6 with something like 3GPP Release 15.
In some ways, the bundling effect in cellular makes sense. Cellular requires longer deployment cycles, higher costs, and more complex equipment installations and integrations. It all takes more time and thus makes sense to plan and iterate in 10-year cycles. Conversely, Wi-Fi lifecycles are shorter, equipment is more distributed, and especially in home networks, the devices are standalone and independent, so there are fewer incumbrances to regular upgrade cycles.
In other words, 5G is more vast and comprehensive in its end-to-end scope, but Wi-Fi is more agile and adaptive with more frequent evolution cycles.