As interest in private cellular networks for enterprise marches forward the case is sometimes made for better reliability and security than Wi-Fi can afford.
Add in newly available spectrum like CBRS and there are numerous examples of enterprises, vendors, and carriers exploring dedicated LTE and 5G networks in industries like manufacturing, healthcare, and education.
But Wi-Fi isn’t sitting idly by. Wi-Fi 6 was introduced, bringing cellular-like capabilities such as traffic steering and determination, among others. And Wi-Fi scored a major win in the U.S. (and other countries) with access to 1,200-megahertz in the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, opening up new channels that mean more bandwidth alongside less congestion and interference.
A session Wednesday will discuss Wi-Fi, private wireless and enterprise connectivity needs as part of the free FierceWireless Wi-Fi virtual summit.
With Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E on the scene, AT&T’s Manish Malhotra, assistant VP of Intelligent LAN Product for AT&T Business, acknowledged that it changes the discussion around security and reliability.
“The enhancements that come with Wi-Fi 6, any technology gap that may have existed previously, I think a lot of those gaps are closed,” Malhotra told Fierce Wireless.
While Wi-Fi and private cellular may each have their own scenarios to shine, the consensus appears to favor a mix of the two technologies, rather than an either/or.
Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), says the notion that Wi-Fi is not secure is misleading. WBA is a Wi-Fi industry organization that aims to enhance customer Wi-Fi experiences and business opportunities through collaborative efforts of service providers, enterprises and cities. Its board member roster includes AT&T, T-Mobile, Boingo, Cisco, Comcast, Google, Intel and others.
Rodrigues believes there’s a misperception Wi-Fi is insecure. “There are plenty of technologies and features that can make Wi-Fi as secure as cellular,” he said.
He said WBA has run several deployments in enterprise settings including hospitality, smart city, retail, and even industrial and manufacturing companies with Wi-Fi that has been fully secure.
Still, with access to new spectrum like CBRS, it’s positive to see a broader portfolio of technologies available for private networks, Rodrigues noted. From an enterprise consumer point of view “there are more options and people can either use one or the other, or even combine them for specific use cases, specific needs that they may have.”
But for Wi-Fi, with the 6 GHz band in play, it’s a completely new time, Rodrigues said.
Wi-Fi 6E offers three-times the amount of spectrum, and he expects Wi-Fi innovation focused on specific applications, potentially prioritizing bandwidth based on users’ capacity needs (something cellular promises with capabilities like network slicing).
Because of the extra spectrum Wi-Fi is now allowed to tap, Wi-Fi networks can become more intelligent to deliver on Quality of Service (QoS) or Quality of Experience (QoE). For example, a user trying to access online dining could have the maximum bandwidth allocated, versus a user who is browsing the internet or receiving email.
“That will change drastically as Wi-Fi 6E becomes adopted and that’s a game change compared to what we have today,” Rodrigues said. “Today we treat all Wi-Fi devices the same way.”
As for whether Wi-Fi 6 and 6E change the discussion about reliability and security versus private cellular, T-Mobile’s Luke Lucas, senior manager National Network Business Development, shared a similar sentiment in that it offers additional options.
“It’s just one more opportunity or tool in the toolbox,” said Lucas. “Every location that considers indoor technology needs to be a custom prescription.”
Lucas manages T-Mobile’s national indoor connectivity programs including Smart Buildings, Smart Cities and the Build Your Own Coverage program (BYOC). These come together collectively he said, particularly under Covid and the civil rights crisis which highlighted that “everybody needs connectivity and everybody needs robust available connectivity.”
While his work takes a tailored approach, Lucas pointed to online banking as example where Wi-Fi could be risky and cellular connections preferable. Same goes for data. “Maybe it’s not the bank balance, but it’s the data, it’s our information that we have,” Lucas said. “It [Wi-Fi] can be a risk. Cellular is a more secure platform, we know that.”
But it all comes back to what a building owner, tenant, or enterprise is looking to do with wireless connectivity, he noted.
Enterprise extends into the home
In the Covid era, a consideration for enterprises looking to transform their local area networks (LAN) follows the shift of more people working from home – a place where Wi-Fi typically reigns.
“The corporate LAN has been extended deeper into employees’ residences,” Malhotra said. “So, it’s not just a matter of what kind of ecosystem that an enterprise has to care for, but they also have to take into account the ecosystem that exists in people’s homes.”
With devices from game consoles and smart TVs to lighting, and laptops or employer-provided smartphones – Wi-Fi is deeply embedded, and employees are always going to require that kind of connectivity when working from home, he said. It’s something Malhotra doesn’t see changing anytime soon.
Enterprises are also taking into account interactions with customers, suppliers, and partners when it comes to LAN. So even those considering choosing Wi-Fi or 5G or CBRS, he doesn’t expect replacement of one versus the other.
“Enterprises won’t typically say 'ok I’m going to convert my corporate LAN strictly to CBRS and private cellular” with no Wi-Fi in branch offices.
Use cases drive decisions
Wi-Fi networks carry a lot of traffic, and when it comes to devices like smartphones, PCs, and tablets, not having Wi-Fi really isn’t an option. But while Wi-Fi isn’t going away, the need for features like on-prem edge computing could drive technology decisions toward private LTE or 5G.
Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have a lot of common enablers, Malhotra noted, such as delivering very high speeds, low latencies and supporting a greater number of device connections simultaneously.
“Typically it’s the customer use-case that’s going to drive what technology they use,” he said. “And in many cases they’ll have to deploy both because they have different use cases that exist in the same venue.”
That's not to say not every enterprise will choose both upgraded Wi-Fi 6 and a private cellular network. In very small venues, he thinks a Wi-Fi-based LAN solution will continue to be appealing, whereas large manufacturing facilities are emerging as a sweet spot for private wireless deployments.
In October, AT&T teamed with Ericsson for private enterprise network enabled with CBRS.
For smaller locations like a retail store, restaurant, or branch office, Malhotra said a cloud-managed solution – that doesn’t involve a lot of controllers on-site but has Wi-Fi access points deployed – is usually a more cost-effective approach, with control and management functions centralized in the cloud. Places where the customer experience is tied to activities like ordering from kiosks on-site, or interacting from the parking lot outside.
In comparison, a large manufacturing plant with IoT devices or robotics and wide-open space available to deploy radios for indoor cellular coverage could opt for LTE/5G.
“You can’t afford the latency of going all the way to the cloud and coming back, but need local computing,” he said. “That becomes a very important use-case for deploying edge computing with 5G or CBRS as the LAN technology of choice.”