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What CIOs should know about 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology

There’s a lot of talk about 5G and Wi-Fi technology. Here’s how these wireless technologies can benefit CIOs’ priority business objectives.

Companies in search of a competitive edge need to be faster, more agile and less burdened by technology’s limitations as they charge forward.

Historically, network infrastructure has been one of those constraints, lacking the speed, capacity and flexibility that enterprises need to innovate and act quickly. From enabling remote workers to data-intensive business applications, the network has at times stood in the way of capabilities such as fast application response times, seamless videoconferencing and the ability to get data insights on the go.

But today, advances in networking architecture—particularly via 5G and Wi-Fi 6 wireless network standards—are poised to deliver improvements in speed, performance and capacity that will help remove the network chokehold on enterprise agility as companies seek to move ever faster.

5G provides wireless communications and networking over large geographic areas. The most important characteristics for businesses are high speed, high throughput and eventual wide availability, at least in moderately to densely populated geographic areas. 5G wireless is expected to have a theoretical shared maximum speed of 10 to 20 Gbps. Wi-Fi 6 technology is a new standard that enterprises—and consumers—can deploy easily. Its key characteristics include higher throughput, lower latency and higher capacity than prior generations of Wi-Fi—also security, reliability and improved traffic management capabilities. Wi-Fi 6 speeds could reach nearly 10 Gbps, some 40% faster than Wi-Fi 5 speeds.  

These vast improvements in network capability are, in turn, poised to have a major impact on companies’ key business priorities over the next few years. Here’s a breakdown of key business initiatives where 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology are poised to usher in change:

  • Enabling digital transformation and company modernization
  • Providing superior customer service
  • Enabling a remote workforce
  • Fostering business innovation and product development
  • Establishing a solid governance, risk and compliance posture

In this article we explore how the technologies of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will help fuel key business initiatives.

Why we need 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology

5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology will enable these speed and performance enhancements. In the near term, though, Wi-Fi 6 will be the dominant technology for high-volume, low-latency traffic in the enterprise, with more clients and access points available in 2019 through 2020. 5G will take longer to roll out—operators must invest in spectrum, core networks and other network infrastructure to enable 5G—with major carriers starting to roll out deployments in select cities in late 2019 and accelerating deployments further into 2021 and beyond. New and more demanding applications will first be deployed within the enterprise and then will take advantage of Wi-Fi 6’s capabilities. As 5G becomes available, these same applications will be used outside the range of enterprise Wi-Fi. 5G will complement Wi-Fi 6 technology. Although both provide high throughput and capacity, low-latency communications, cost and management control issues will favor Wi-Fi 6.

Five business pillars driving 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology

1.       Digital transformation. The single most common driver to adopt Wi-Fi 6 and 5G network architectures is their importance to digital transformation and company modernization efforts. A Harvard Business Review study found that 87% of CEOs say that digitization of the business is a priority, and 66% plan to change business models to accommodate modernization efforts. This kind of radical improvement will require coordinating technical and organisational resources. Technical requirements will include high throughput, reliable, scalable communications and networking. These are the kinds of requirements Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are designed to meet.

2.       Providing superior customer service. One of the common motivations for digital transformation is the desire to provide exceptional customer service, including the digital experience of customers. Continuous, high-speed service applications that function on-site with Wi-Fi 6—and remotely over 5G—are part of this equation to improve customer service quality.

3.       Enabling a remote and on-the-go workforce. Wireless technologies like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can equip new ways of working. Digital transformation has changed how employees work, enabling productivity from any location and device.

Gartner research finds that enterprises now prioritise providing employees with tools to be more effective and productive. Expect to see business invest more in support for joint cognitive systems that couple humans and technology with cloud-based AI. These services may require transmission of large volumes of data. Further, the data collected by Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices, mobile and other sources needs to be analysed. Analysts will have greater and better access to data visualisations, 3-D renderings and more advanced analytics, with enhancements to networking and communications. These data-intensive processes need 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology for speed and performance as well, particularly when devices use edge computing architecture rather than centralised cloud or data centre architecture.

4.       Generating new business ideas. Fueling business innovation is another driver of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 adoption. Analytics is an example of a business function that will benefit from innovation. Having access to a high-speed, high-volume communications network, for example, streamlines analysis procedures. A typical model uses bulk data loads followed by a separate and discrete analysis phase. The new networking technologies will enable continuous data collection and analysis. Developers can deliver applications and services that offer more efficient interactions with users because the network supports more data-intensive interfaces such as 3-D renderings and 3-D objects in motion.

5.       Governance, risk and compliance. organisations stand to gain immensely from improved network speed and performance. But as the proliferation of IoT devices continues —with 31 billion IoT devices expected by 2020—the attack surface for malicious actors continues to broaden. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology stand to entrench that problem further. organisations will need to formulate policies that can be applied in agile, constantly changing environments. Part of this will require formulating governance of these standards to prevent security gaps from being compromised.

As companies charge forward, new ways of working and delivering services bring risks, especially in governance. organisations will need to consider the risks that come with more complex technologies. As systems become more complex, they introduce the potential for new forms of failure. And the behavior of complex systems is difficult to predict. Monitoring is essential in order to identify problematic behaviors in systems and respond to incidents.

Treating 5G and Wi-Fi 6 as a unified networking platform encourages the use of policy-based controls that can scale to a large number of users, services and devices.

Getting ready for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technology

Wi-Fi 6 is available now and 5G is being deployed but may not be widely available for several years. In the short term, make use of Wi-Fi 6 while planning for 5G. Here are some final recommendations to consider as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 become adopted:

  • View 5G and Wi-Fi 6 as a two-track strategy (short-term and long-term) for expanding network capacity.
  • Architect your network to manage 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technologies as a single resource.
  • Develop applications and services that take advantage of Wi-Fi 6. When 5G is available, you will have services in place to exploit the benefits of 5G.
  • Design for continuity in networking between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. Users should be able to seamlessly move from one networking technology to another without interruption.
  • Plan how to use policy-driven resource management and security controls.

This new merged networking platform will not be deployed quickly, but it is best to start planning now. By focusing on security policies, unified management systems and monitoring these technologies enterprises can best exploit the benefits of a unified 5G and Wi-Fi 6 platform.

Dan Sullivan

Dan Sullivan is a software architect specialising in streaming analytics, machine learning and cloud computing. Sullivan is the author of NoSQL for Mere Mortals and several LinkedIn Learning courses on databases, data science and machine learning.

Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”