Enterprise private wireless networks based on cellular technologies have seen limited deployments over the past decade. It is believed that 5G will change that. Much of the arguments in favour of 5G centre on its performance capabilities. But this ignores other technologies that compete with 5G, such as LoRaWAN for IoT connectivity which 5G supports through NB-IoT and RedCap, and Wi-Fi for broadband connectivity. Focusing on Wi-Fi, the technology is thought to be too unreliable or unable to provide similar latency performance as 5G. This belief ignores recent developments in Wi-Fi which is progressing along a roadmap that addresses its shortcomings on reliability and latency performance. Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 7 are introducing features that increase the predictability of performance for networks under traffic load. This makes Wi-Fi viable for many applications that 5G is contending for.
Range and Mobility
Wi-Fi excels at delivering on its objectives of providing communications in unlicensed spectrum. It is a multiaccess technology for uncoordinated shared medium which inherently leads to its weakness in delivering a predictable performance. Wi-Fi limits the coverage range by design and by regulatory requirements. In contrast, cellular technologies are coordinated access technologies designed for licensed spectrum where centralized planning has an advantage. Thus, we see cellular technologies excel in providing long-range communications and mobility. Wi-Fi falls short in comparison with cellular in these categories. However, the evolution of Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) are improving the performance for both range and mobility over prior generations.
Note: We have published an Insight Note comparing 5G and Wi-Fi which you can download by clicking here.
Latency and Jitter
Wi-Fi's evolution roadmap will also improve latency, particularly under traffic load. Already Wi-Fi vendors are speaking of sub-10 msec performance. 5G has laid a major claim in this area. But irrespective of the ultimate latency, one needs to consider: 1. The jitter matters as much as latency for applications that demand precision; and, 2. The overall end-to-end network of which the access technology is only a small part of. For instance, time-sensitive networks supporting low-latency applications requires upgrading the entire timing and synchronization function which adds cost. Similarly, fitting 5G into the enterprise cybersecurity architecture requires upgrade the cybersecurity infrastructure to accommodate 5G protocols. Since Wi-Fi already dominates in the enterprise, Wi-Fi performance upgrades give 5G enterprise private networks serious competition. However, specific advantages in 5G technology means that the two technologies remain complementary.
I see more clarity of purpose in the future roadmap for Wi-Fi than for cellular technologies (5G/6G). Wi-Fi has many shortcomings in performance under load, reliability and predictability which the evolution of the 802.11 standard is addressing. In contrast, there is little clarity on the cellular side: the literature around 6G is full of esoteric applications whose commercial viability is unproven. Still, both standards provide ample features such that many are unimplemented. It remains, as always, a matter of market readiness and vendor support to deliver on the promise of these technologies. This is where vendors can differentiate their solutions by catering specifically to enterprises in different industry verticals.