5G Private Networks vs Wi-Fi: What channel partners should know

By Darryl Brick, VP Partner Sales at Cradlepoint.

  • 1 month ago Posted in

For years, cellular networks and Wi-Fi appeared settled into their areas of dominance. But in some enterprise use cases, upgrades to cellular technology have handed companies unprecedented choice.  

For partners who’ve been around awhile, the 5G vs Wi-Fi debate may seem a little tired. However, the debate persists, and technologies continue to co-exist, as each have as both Wi-Fi and cellular continue to evolve. Wi-Fi is a type of wireless local area network (WLAN) that is favored for supplying wireless connectivity to the home, office, campus and other facilities ok with “best effort” connectivity in many environments but best suited indoors. Cellular connectivity is the dominant player outdoors, on mobile phones and many other devices when Wi-Fi and other connectivity options are unavailable.  

Recent events and connectivity ecosystem evolution have triggered significant changes to the dynamic between technologies. As Wi-Fi and cellular networks have been upgraded through new standards releases, the roll out of 5G has brought increased capacity, coverage, mobility, speeds, and lower latency. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi 6 is getting closer to cellular with increased capacity, coverage, and higher speeds. Both have inherent strengths and weaknesses. 

 

Another important shift is that, cellular has become an attractive alternative to Wi-Fi for enterprises — specifically for those looking for greater support for business critical applications, wanting complete control of their network. This is evident in the rise of private cellular networks, PCNs, among today’s enterprises. Helping drive this growth in enterprise PCN are changes to spectrum policy, including the allocation of licensed spectrum for enterprises. With the increased availability of licensed or shared spectrum, enterprise companies can operate their own PCNs and exercise complete control over the network, and as such will be looking for partners who can support them in this journey.  

 

As the enterprise evolves, three major wireless technologies are increasingly co-existing: public cellular, private cellular and Wi-Fi.   

 

However, thanks to PCNs and the enhanced performance they provide in the form of increased coverage, mobility, reliability, security, and predictable network performance — enterprises will be looking for partners who can offer them the choice of these technologies depending on their need.    

Why are PCN deployments increasing? 

So, why may some enterprises be opting for private 5G or LTE over Wi-Fi? One of Wi-Fis limitations includes reliability. Because Wi-Fi operates on unlicensed spectrum, it may be available but not necessarily useable because of signal interference, traffic congestion or a minimal coverage area. In terms of security and capacity, Wi-Fi also comes up short when compared to a private 5G network. For example, private cellular networks can eliminate credential-based attacks thanks to SIM-based authentication. Network users must have approved physical SIMs or electronic SIMs will be able to access the network, giving enterprises more control over who enters their network. Also, even if a bad actor gets their hands on a device with an approved SIM, they’d only have access to the portions of the network for which that device is approved. 

 

In terms of mobility, cellular networks are deterministic – meaning the network determines how to assign cellular clients to the cellular network access points (APs), and when to handoff to another cellular AP based on signal strength, QoS (quality of service) standards assigned by the enterprise network administrator, and other identifiers.  Since Wi-Fi networks are not deterministic, this vastly improves the network reliability for mobile devices that roam between cellular APs in a PCN.   

 

Providing connectivity for large areas isn’t easy.  When it comes to coverage, in many situations private cellular networks make a lot more sense as well. Often, private cellular can cover 10x the space outdoors compared to traditional Wi-Fi. For example, Ericsson is working with the Port of Tyne to provide site-wide connectivity through a cellular private network which will support autonomous navigation, remote crane operations, connected drones and wearable technology. 

 

Then, there’s the question of reliability.  Many warehouses and industrial environments now use sensors and other devices to connect or have more visibility into their operations and machinery requiring the constant sharing of data between machinery or to a database. When it comes to automation and robotics, the lower latency that private 5G offers means greater control for enterprise users.  Then there’s the way 5G combines with edge computing, which provides near real-time processing by bringing data processing to the point of data creation, such as a factory or warehouse floor instead of the cloud. The low latency necessary for real-time data transfer, the control of the network across which that data transfers, and the inherent security a PCN provides that data is why PCNs are more reliable. 

Simple and Secure 

 

Lastly, what’s become increasingly difficult for the enterprise to ignore is that with the maturation of private cellular solutions, the current value proposition for Wi-Fi to support business and mission critical applications continues to shrink. PCN solutions are not only more comprehensive but enterprises will find it’s easier than ever to deploy and manage them after deployment. Meaning, it is critical channel partners take note of its benefits now before they fall behind the competition in offering this dynamic technology. 

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