Monica Paolini, Senza Fili
Wi-Fi is ubiquitous in the enterprise. Can you think of an office building, a warehouse, a hospital, or a college campus an enterprise without Wi‑Fi? With Wi-Fi 6, the next generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi has become an even better fit for the enterprise, for voice and data connectivity, and for new IoT and industrial IoT (IIoT) use cases. As enterprise connectivity needs grow, Wi-Fi has stepped up to the challenge with higher capacity, greater reliability and security, and lower latency, alongside a new set of traffic management tools. Far from Wi-Fi being replaced by 5G, the two technologies continue to develop and be adopted in parallel, complementing each other in increasingly integrated enterprise wireless private networks.
Wi-Fi evolution has accelerated to meet our fundamental connectivity needs
Wi-Fi has been around for 20 years. Not only has adoption massively expanded – across networks and devices – but it has steadily evolved in terms of performance, features, security, and spectrum bands covered, all while maintaining its low-cost structure. With Wi-Fi 6, and its most recent expansion to 6 GHz with Wi-Fi 6E, we are seeing the biggest evolutionary step of the technology – one that specifically addresses the growing capacity and connectivity needs of the enterprise.
At home and at work, Wi-Fi is the primary access technology for many of us across the world. Cisco VNI has predicted Wi-Fi traffic accounting for 51% of all IP traffic and 72% of wireless traffic by 2022. During the COVID‑19 pandemic, Wi-Fi was the access technology with the largest traffic increase for both voice and data. It provided the fundamental connectivity we needed for work, education, health care, social interaction, and entertainment while we were confined in our homes. During the pandemic, Comcast reported a 36% increase in Wi-Fi traffic and a 17% decrease in LTE traffic on Xfinity Mobile, and T-Mobile saw a 57% increase in Wi-Fi tethering.
The enduring appeal of Wi-Fi to the enterprise
With Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi will retain its role as the most widely used wireless technology in the enterprise. Cisco estimates that 35% of Wi-Fi traffic goes over enterprise-owned networks. Much of the growth in enterprise wireless connectivity that we expect from digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) in the enterprise is going to be delivered by Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi has given enterprises the flexibility to deploy wireless networks where they need to, at prices they could afford. Wi-Fi has also been able to provide levels of indoor coverage and capacity that cellular networks have not. In turn, this has made it possible to eliminate much of the wireline access, to the point that now many laptops do not even have Ethernet connectivity, but they invariably have Wi-Fi.
With Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi will retain this role and expand it in new directions.
Enterprise private networks are the bright spot for growth in wireless today. But enterprise Wi-Fi networks are already, and will continue to be, private networks, run by or on behalf of the enterprise. As they evolve to include other access technologies, enterprise private networks will continue to have Wi-Fi at the core as they evolve to include Wi-Fi 6.
Integrating Wi-Fi 6 and other wireless technologies
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are complementary technologies that are learning from each other. There is some technological convergence – e.g., both 3GPP and IEEE use OFDMA, MU-MIMO and beamforming – but at the same time the two technologies have retained fundamentally different characteristics, with Wi-Fi dominating in home and office environments, and 5G solidly anchored in use cases that require wide-area deployments. Wi-Fi makes it possible to reuse spectrum more intensively and have higher traffic density; 5G is better suited for applications with strict quality of service and performance requirements.
Enterprises need both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 – and already use other technologies as well, such as Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) technologies for some IoT applications or microwave links for point-to-point transmissions. Depending on the services and applications they use, enterprises will choose different mixes of Wi-Fi 6, 5G and other wireless technologies.
What is crucial for the coexistence of multiple wireless access interfaces is the ability to integrate them within the wireless private network. The growing adoption of distributed network architectures that combine elements of centralized cloud with elements of edge computing is going to be a fundamental enabler of the integration of multiple wireless technologies in the enterprise. Again, this is an area of convergence between the two technologies: traditionally, Wi-Fi uses a distributed network model, with networks deployed within the enterprise location, while cellular networks use a centralized network model, necessary to provide wide-area coverage.