When to use 5G, when to use Wi-Fi 6

5G is a cellular service, and Wi-Fi 6 is a short-range wireless access technology. Each has attributes that are useful in specific enterprise roles.

We have seen hype about whether 5G cellular or Wi-Fi 6 will win in the enterprise, but the reality is that the two are largely complementary with an overlap for some use cases, which will make for an interesting competitive environment through the early 2020s.

The potential for 5G in enterprises

The promise of 5G for enterprise users is higher speed connectivity with lower latency. Cellular technology uses licensed spectrum which largely eliminates potential interference that may occur with unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum.  Like current 4G LTE technologies, 5G can be supplied by cellular wireless carriers or built as a private network . 

The architecture for 5G requires many more radio access points and can suffer from poor or no connectivity indoors.  So, the typical organization needs to assess its current 4G and potential 5G service for its PCs, routers and other devices.   Deploying indoor microcells, repeaters and distributed antennas can help solve indoor 5G service issues.  As with 4G, the best enterprise 5G use case is for truly mobile connectivity such as public safety vehicles and in non-carpeted environments like mining, oil and gas extraction, transportation, farming and some manufacturing.

In addition to broad mobility, 5G offers advantages in terms of authentication while roaming and speed of deployment as might be needed to provide WAN connectivity to a pop-up office or retail site. 5G will have the capacity to offload traffic in cases of data congestion such as live video.  As 5G standards mature, the technology will improve its options for low-power IoT connectivity. 

5G will gradually roll out over the next four to five years starting  in large cities and specific geographies; 4G technology will remain prevalent for a number of years.  Enterprise users will need new devices, dongles and routers to connect to 5G services. For example, Apple iPhones are not expected to support 5G until 2020, and IoT devices will need specific cellular compatibility to connect to 5G.

Doyle Research expects the 1Gbps and higher bandwidth promised by 5G will have a significant impact on the SD-WAN market.  4G LTE already enables cellular services to become a primary WAN link. 5G is likely to be cost competitive or cheaper than many wired WAN options such as MPLS or the internet. 5G gives enterprise WAN managers more options to provide increased bandwidth to their branch sites and remote users – potentially displacing MPLS over time.

The potential for Wi-Fi 6 in enterprises

Wi-Fi is nearly ubiquitous for connecting mobile laptops, tablets and other devices to enterprise networks. Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) is the latest version of Wi-Fi and brings the promise of increased speed, low latency, improved aggregate bandwidth and advanced traffic management.  While it has some similarities with 5G (both are based on orthogonal frequency division multiple access), Wi-Fi 6 is less prone to interference, requires less power (which prolongs device battery life) and has improved spectral efficiency.

As is typical for Wi-Fi, early vendor-specific versions of Wi-Fi 6 are currently available from many manufacturers. The Wi-Fi alliance plans for certification of Wi-Fi 6-standard gear in 2020.  Most enterprises will upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 along standard

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