For nearly five years now, those of us in IT who have followed enterprise networking have been inundated with various claims and counterclaims regarding some sort of competition between 5G-based cellular networking and WiFi 6. Much has been made of the theoretical superiority of 5G's capabilities in terms of network management, performance, security, and propagation capabilities; but in my experience, deciding on any technology in the abstract without specific context has always been a risky proposition.
It should always be the specific needs of a business application that determine the optimal technical environment needed to support it; anything else is putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. This makes it difficult to understand the messaging about 5G being the thing a company needs to "accelerate their business," when in reality, it's common for many business customers to use WiFi and cellular data services interchangeably, especially given the growing adoption of SD-WAN technology that looks to expand beyond the traditional networking challenges to streamline access to the cloud.
From a mixed business/consumer perspective, it's estimated that there are more than 18 billion WiFi-enabled devices in use worldwide, closely followed by nearly 12 billion cellular connections. This is remarkable considering there's just over 8 billion people in the world, about a third of which are likely either too young or live in areas where digital technology is sparse.
Fortunately, both WiFi 6 and 5G cellular networks have undergone substantial and continuous improvement over the last two decades or so, but even though both technologies use radios to move data, the infrastructure and detailed management needed to support a global 5G network is far more complex and expensive than that required for WiFi, a low-cost and functional wireless network that is already in use in many homes and businesses.
WiFi 6 or 5G? It Depends on the Business Need
In some ways it's easy to see where the line between WiFi and 5G can be drawn. The traditional use case for WiFi has been to support client systems where it would be too costly or impractical to wire directly, based on their location or nominal bandwidth requirements. WiFi has become ubiquitous, and the configuration and management process for building out a WiFi network is close to plug and play. Modern WiFi access points (APs) for both consumers and businesses offer simplified and intuitive web-based utilities that guide users through setting up authentication, security, and access policies that can get a secure and functional WiFi network up and running in minutes.
For mobile and outdoor applications, cellular networks, starting with 4G LTE and now 5G, have evolved beyond telecommunications to provide substantially greater range and reliable connectivity for a number of data-rich mobile applications. Both public and private cellular networks have found a home in some of the largest-scale industries — such as light and heavy manufacturing, public utilities, oil and gas production, and transportation, to name a few — where WiFi can't meet the mobility, performance, and signal reliability required for specific mission-critical applications.
Like any other IT project, it's up to us technologists to adequately define the business need and then make technological recommendations that will reliably meet or exceed those needs. The choice between 5G or WiFi 6 isn't a binary one — both methodologies can and should coexist, like any other hybrid IT environment.
Top Factors to Consider Before Choosing 5G and/or WiFi 6
Of course, there is a broad range of technical considerations that come into play when assigning business applications to 5G and/or WiFi 6. When I began this research on the current state-of-the-art wireless networking, I was able to identify more than a dozen factors I would take into account, even without a specific use case in mind. In the interest of preserving our sanity, these top the list:
- Physical Location and System Mobility: Because both WiFi and 5G depend on radio technology, they share similar limitations when it comes to acquiring and maintaining signal. Coverage can vary dramatically based on surroundings for both technologies, though 5G's combination of higher power output and frequency options is better for penetrating buildings, landscape, and vegetation. On average, a small cellular AP can cover about 10,000 square feet, compared with about 2,500 square feet for a comparable WiFi 6 AP. In addition, cellular service is designed to provide superior "hand-off" capabilities when it comes to maintaining unbroken connections with moving clients. Dropped calls are annoying, but assured connections can be mission-critical when it comes applications like remotely controlled systems.
- Network Speed and Latency: The quantity, density, and dependence on business data have been exploding over the last two decades, and they show no sign of decreasing. What's likely going to affect wireless network choice the most is the critical response window between the client system and whatever systems it connects with for an action on the edge, in the cloud, or even at the data center core. Unfortunately, the actual capabilities of any wireless network can only be evaluated in situ, by taking into account the current state of the radios, the network, the environment, the number of concurrent connections, and competing devices, all of which may change at any given time. In a May 6, 2023, article in the IEEE Spectrum journal, Michael Kosiol stated, "Even the most robust 5G networks are barely cracking 1 gigabit per second, well short of the International Telecommunication Union's stated ideal download speed of 20 Gb/s." As always, your mileage may vary.
- Security and Authentication: Network security will continue to be a serious problem, regardless of the type of connectivity involved. Unfortunately, much of the risk lies with the human aspect of security, especially in the case of mobile devices that somehow grow feet and disappear all on their own. Both WiFi 6 and 5G offer security options, but they don't always align between the carrier and the IT customer. Device-based authentication, multi-factor, and biometric authentication can go a long way toward eliminating some of the most common methods of intrusion, provided they remain aligned between the 5G provider and the wireless customer.
I'm a firm believer that any technological advice that doesn't begin with "well, it depends" should be considered highly suspect, particularly so in the wireless networking space. Truth be told, I can think of no other IT technology that is so susceptible to the variables of environment as is the challenge of high-speed networking via radio. The fact that it works to the current levels of 5G/WiFi 6 — even at its worst — is already remarkable, and it will undoubtedly continue to improve with the introduction of 6G toward the end of the decade.
The same holds true of WiFi 6 and the upcoming WiFi 7 standard, but then it's almost a sure bet that the data and application requirements will continue to increase along the same lines. However, switching over to 6G by the end of the decade will likely incur another massively expensive investment in new technology, something that will cost a tiny fraction in comparison for comparable WiFi 7 technology updates.
It's somewhat easy to forgive the 5G hype. Given the massively expensive underlying infrastructure and cutting-edge technology development necessary to run a worldwide, wireless communication grid, it's perfectly reasonable for cellular carriers to explore new applications to recoup hundreds of billions of dollars in 5G infrastructure and spectrum investments. But it's also likely that carriers will have to settle for only part of the wireless pie when a less complex, less costly, and very well understood alternative like WiFi is perfectly capable of supporting a large percentage of wireless use cases.
5G and WiFi 6 companies would do well to find ways to work in partnership, but this ideal is complicated by vendors and standards organizations that are more focused on advancing their own agendas rather than serving the needs of their customers.
As a customer, avoid the hype, take the time to really understand your business needs, and use a combination of whatever makes the most sense.