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The benefits of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technology: Complementary, not competing

The hype in boosting network performance has centred on 5G, but let’s not forget the benefits of Wi-Fi 6. 

Both cellular and Wi-Fi networking are getting major upgrades. And while these technologies will each feature individual improvements, they will also work in tandem to fill in gaps where the other technology may not be ideal for some environments.

These technologies, 5G and Wi-Fi 6, will play an important role in companies’ digital transformation efforts for years to come. In the most basic terms, architects will use Wi-Fi 6 when they can and 5G when they must. While Wi-Fi 6 will often be less costly and faster, it will not always be available. Taken together, these technologies can provide cost savings while achieving the greatest level of performance from the two technologies.

Let’s look at some of the advantages of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G and explore examples of how enterprises will likely use both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G to accomplish their goals.

Enterprise benefits of Wi-Fi 6

First, let’s cover some basics. The Wi-Fi Alliance has renamed the IEEE 802.11ax specification as Wi-Fi 6, so named because it’s the sixth generation of Wi-Fi. (The existing standard, 802.11ac, will be known at Wi-Fi 5.)

One of the oft-cited benefits of Wi-Fi 6 is the speed boost over previous iterations. Wi-Fi 6 speeds could reach nearly 10 Gbps, some 40% faster than Wi-Fi 5 speeds. In addition to delivering greater speed, Wi-Fi 6 splits network capacity among a group of devices. That will be immensely important as the number of devices proliferates. According to Statista, for example, by 2020 the average number of connected devices per person is expected to be 6.58, resulting in about 50 billion connected devices in total. Wi-Fi 6 will help to accommodate this influx of devices in the enterprise—and at home.

In contrast, 5G wireless is expected to have a theoretical shared maximum speed of 10 to 20 Gbps. So 5G will be faster than Wi-Fi 6.

But Wi-Fi 6 and 5G speeds will depend on a variety of factors, so real-world application won’t necessarily match these theoretical maximums. Factors include the number of devices connecting to a single 5G cell and the distance and obstructions between a 5G-connected device and the 5G tower. Ultimately, if a Wi-Fi 6 deployment is designed and built properly, each individual wireless connection will likely have far greater throughput and lower latency than 5G alternatives.

5G and Wi-Fi 6

With proper deployment, another benefit of Wi-Fi 6 is that it’s easier to guarantee near wall-to-wall in-building coverage compared with 5G. This is largely because of the improvements in Wi-Fi 6’s multiple in/multiple out (MIMO) technology. As mentioned, Wi-Fi 6 also improves network capacity at the same time that wireless device concentration increases.

Next, consider that most companies will use 5G from a wireless carrier. Thus, a key difference between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G is that Wi-Fi is a wireless LAN (WLAN) technology, while 5G is cellular broadband. With 5G, connectivity to applications, data and services that reside within a corporate LAN will have to remotely access apps and data across the Internet through a secure channel such as a remote access VPN tunnel. Alternatively, since Wi-Fi 6 is designed to be part of a secure corporate LAN, it sits behind edge security equipment, protecting it from untrusted networks.

Wi-Fi devices are more prevalent compared with 5G-ready devices – or even 4G- and 3G-compatible ones. While some of the newest smartphones now ship with 5G-capable chips (as well as Wi-Fi 6), most other wireless computing devices such as laptops and smart devices are likely to have Wi-Fi-only connection capabilities. Given the prevalence of Wi-Fi 6-compatible devices and the timeline for 5G infrastructure, Wi-Fi 6 may have a faster adoption curve.

Wireless devices themselves also tend to chew through far less battery life when connected to Wi-Fi as opposed to 5G. Again, the amount of battery required to connect and to send/receive data will vary greatly based on various factors. Battery efficiency is especially good with Wi-Fi 6, thanks to a feature implemented within it called target wake time (TWT).

Last, and often most important, is cost. As with previous carrier technologies, a 5G subscription is significantly more expensive compared with a typical Wi-Fi 6 deployment lifecycle. This applies for the Internet of Things-(IoT)-connected world we now live in. It’s far more cost-effective for a business to offer Wi-Fi in the workplace as opposed to using 5G carrier networks.

How the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will be complementary

But, of course, there are benefits of 5G technology compared with Wi-Fi 6 as well. 5G will be a revolutionary technology for enterprise IT in areas where Wi-Fi is not ideal. Again, the mantra for network architects is this: Use Wi-Fi when you can, and 5G when you must.

One example of this principle is a IoT sensor deployment with hundreds or thousands of IoT devices that need wireless connectivity. Within corporate-owned buildings, Wi-Fi 6 will be the go-to wireless technology to connect IoT devices. When IoT moves outside the walls of a corporate building, a sensor can still connect with ample speed and reliability by exploiting 5G as the wireless mode of transport.

Another example is to use 5G to achieve mobile broadband Internet connectivity for a temporary or mobile location – then have others use Wi-Fi to connect other wireless users. This can be accomplished with 5G-capable routers or firewalls combined with built-in or external wireless access points to allow others to access the Internet through a single 5G broadband connection.

Lastly, 5G is likely to be used in situations where Wi-Fi struggles to operate efficiently. Remember that Wi-Fi 2.4 and 5GHz frequencies operate in unlicensed spectrum. This means that individual users or entities don’t own the wireless spectrum Wi-Fi operates on, as is the case with licensed 5G spectrum. This can create a situation where wireless spectrum interference occurs in locations such as multi-occupancy buildings. In scenarios like these, 5G that operates over carrier-licensed spectrum will likely perform far better than Wi-Fi.

A tale of two technologies

IT pros are right to turn to 5G as the next massive revolution in enterprise wireless connectivity. The technology is a tremendous improvement over 3G and4G and LTE iterations. But, as noted, the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 shouldn’t be downplayed either. It has plenty of features–and the ability to connect Wi-Fi users far more efficiently and reliably than previously. In tandem–and when deployed in the proper situations– the combination will allow businesses to be flexible when connecting users and devices both inside and outside the corporate LAN.

Andrew Froehlich

Andrew Froelhich is the president of West Gate Networks, an IT consultancy and services provider. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 15 years. His primary focus is Cisco wired and wireless, voice-network design, implementation and support as well as network security. Froehlich has experience with network infrastructure upgrades and new buildouts. He's also been heavily involved in data centre architectures designed to provide fault-tolerant enterprise applications and services to thousands of users.

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.”