The battle of the ‘Wi’s: which is the right solution for your enterprise connectivity? Wi-Fi? Public 4G/5G? Private LTE/4G? Private 5G? It can be a confusing and perhaps heated debate. Let’s answer the question with some simple definitions. Then we’ll talk about which technology is best for each industry application.
What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a short-distance wireless technology based on shared radio waves that transmit data to your smartphones, tablets, and other devices. Because the radio waves used for Wi-Fi are shared and unlicensed, Wi-Fi is easy to access and cost-effective, and the latest Wi-Fi devices can reach impressive speeds. The downside is this public shared spectrum can experience interference and bandwidth issues if too many users are trying to share at the same time (think of hundreds of airline passengers after landing, or thousands of fans in a stadium). This is problematic for business-critical enterprise applications.
What are LTE/4G, and 5G?
Cellular technology is continually evolving. LTE and 4G are synonymous, and they stand for “long term evolution” or the fourth generation (4G) of cellular technology. 5G is the fifth generation. The 4G standard was first defined in 2008 after the iPhone launch. 4G is still the predominant technology in use today. 5G is the next evolution, developed to meet the challenge of connecting billions and billions of Industrial IoT (IIoT) devices. Now popular around the world, the IoT device ecosystem is becoming 5G-enabled.
Industrial IoT, of course, is an enterprise solution, not a consumer one. The key to success is how to best set up the network for enterprise application connectivity. Local area networks, wide area networks, cloud networks, virtual networks, public networks, and private networks all play an important role. Let’s talk specifically about public wireless vs private wireless, as these two are typically compared and often confused:
Public 4G/5G for business: This service is offered by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) through a data plan. Some MNOs call this “private” wireless, but the carrier still owns and operates the network, and businesses are charged for data usage. Even at a fraction of a cent per megabyte of data, costs can quickly add up in an environment with hundreds of cameras, scanners, or robots connected.
Private LTE/4G/5G: In a truly private wireless setting, the network is deployed behind the enterprise firewall, and the enterprise maintains control of the network and the data. This allows for flexibility, mobility, and high performance, while also controlling data access and security. With a private network, the enterprise pays no fees for data usage because they own the network. The enterprise controls access to the network so interference and bandwidth problems can be held in check. But most importantly, this controlled and local access reduces vulnerability to cybersecurity risk. For the modern enterprise using wireless connectivity to run business-critical applications, that security advantage is huge.
How do we compare technologies?
Of course, Wi-Fi can be run both locally and privately as well, and many enterprises use Wi-Fi to support their business. How does an enterprise know when Wi-Fi is sufficient or when to consider the latest private wireless technology? To compare, we measure performance. The performance criteria are:
Speed: How fast does data travel through the connection? In some enterprise applications, sending and receiving speeds between devices are critical. In others, not so much. For instance, what if your factory or warehouse uses automated vehicles to move about and perform tasks, in addition to employees performing various functions? If the speed of data transfer to and from the vehicle sensor is not fast enough to react when a collision is about to happen – between one autonomous vehicle and another or worse yet a person – the result can be dire. Transmission speed is mission-critical in these applications.
Bandwidth: How much data can be sent or received at any one time? Or how big is the figurative pipe the data travels through to get to its destination? When data levels are constant, bandwidth is more easily measured and controlled. But in enterprise environments when data transfer fluctuates the bandwidth issue can become a problem, especially when you need to quickly process a lot of data. Bandwidth becomes a critical requirement for specific use cases like video streaming.
Latency: While bandwidth is the amount of data your connection can handle, latency refers to delays that impact how quickly data gets to your devices. Bandwidth and latency are different, but they are related. Latency is measured by “ping rate” – the speed (in milliseconds) it takes a signal to travel from one device to another and back again. Good latency has a ping rate below 150 milliseconds, and 5G has ultra-low latency of under 10 milliseconds. In the example above of an automated vehicle sensing a person or object in its way, ultra-low latency is needed to ensure safety. An enterprise may require high speed, applications will have maximum performance when they have high speed, high bandwidth, and low latency for maximum performance.
Range: How far can the data travel between devices before losing strength? Range can also be described as coverage. Wi-Fi is generally short-range (up to 30 feet indoors to 300 feet outdoors), while 4G and 5G can cover greater ranges (100 square feet indoors to over 1.8 miles mile outdoors). As a result, fewer 4G/5G access points are needed to cover an enterprise, and the private network can be designed so that both indoor and outdoor areas have good coverage. This can be an important consideration in an airport, for example, that needs coverage from the terminal to the tarmac, or in a warehouse that requires coverage from the loading dock to the truck yard.
Interference: Wireless interference can occur in two ways – obstruction or congestion. Physical obstruction of the data path from source to device or device to device can interfere with the radio signal strength. Interference may be caused by glass, walls, storage racks, or even the material stored on the racks. Secondly, interference can occur from too many connections competing for limited airwaves. One signal can interfere with another, blocking transmission, or making reception unreliable. At an airport, for example, when an Airbus 380 unloads its 545 passengers, and they all get on the Wi-Fi network at once, performance degrades for everyone.
Mobility: Can connectivity move with the device? People and devices move. Robots and vehicles must move to perform tasks, so mobility can be a make-or-break deal for certain enterprises. Which devices require mobility and what technology will best fit that need must be an integral part of the decision process.
Scalability: Can the technology scale and grow as you do? If we’ve learned anything about technology, it’s that it’s always changing. Enterprises with long-range budgetary constraints especially need “built-in” scalability and some solutions evolve better than others. It’s possible to design for the short-term while planning for the long-term, expanding capabilities and technologies as they grow, and as budgets allow. Private 4G has the promise of evolving gracefully to 5G, enabling even greater capabilities for advanced Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) applications as the 5G ecosystem matures.
Security: Is the enterprise safe from outsiders, intruders, and hackers? Security is a key consideration for enterprises big and small. As already mentioned, Wi-Fi uses public radio waves and is vulnerable to hacking and disruption. Private 4G/5G allows the enterprise to secure their encrypted data behind private firewalls, while also using private SIM cards to control access. These built-in security measures make private wireless solutions the superior choice for the modern enterprise, minimizing cyber risk to the organization while giving them more control over their network and data.
Which technology is best for which use case?
Now that we understand the different technologies and performance criteria, we can get back to our original question: Which ‘Wi’ is best for your industry?
Wi-Fi for enterprise
Enterprise-level Wi-Fi access points (APs) are more robust and managed with slightly different protocols than the Wi-Fi APs used at home. The enterprise equipment is designed for performance, and the network configurations require multiple access points and IT admin control to ensure performance and security levels are maintained. Enterprise Wi-Fi network architectures are best suited for:
- Small-medium Corporate Headquarters
- Educational Campuses
- Retail Environments
- Healthcare Offices and Clinics
- Remote Workforce and Cloud-Based VPN
Private 5G wireless for the IIoT enterprise
As we’ve seen, private 4G/5G solutions are viable options for business-critical enterprise applications, and are fast becoming a key enabler of Industry 4.0. Private 4G/5G wireless solutions offer advantages for specific industry applications like these:
Airports encompass large geographical footprints of both indoor and outdoor spaces. They provide connectivity to service personnel and staff, passengers, airline pilots, and traffic control, as well as retail and restaurant vendors. An airport is a complex ecosystem well suited for private 4G/5G networks. Mission-critical operations can be delegated to a secure network with superior and reliable connectivity, freeing up the Wi-Fi network for passengers. Consider the above-wing applications for automating check in and boarding. Below-wing fleet services and maintenance engineers can coordinate seamlessly with accurate data at their fingertips. And airport building operations, electronic flight signage, and retail operations all function securely with private 4G/5G networks, while being able to scale for future innovations and growth.
Warehouses are experiencing tremendous growth as on-demand, just-in-time delivery rocks the industry. Private 5G networks are helping these enterprises embrace automation. Advanced logistic operations employ automated guided vehicles (AGVs), collaborative robotics, barcode scanners, and automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) systems to function quickly and efficiently. Smart CCTV, quality assurance, and access monitoring systems coordinate with building operations systems to provide energy-efficient, climate-controlled, warehouse buildings that are safe and secure.
With IIoT capabilities, factories can address supply-chain and overseas manufacturing issues. Production applications enabled by private 5G include asset tracking of raw materials even before they get to the factory (so manufacturers know in real-time, exactly when their supplies are). Predictive maintenance and monitoring solutions allow sensors and devices to provide operational analytics for improved productivity and reduced downtime. Incorporating private 5G connectivity lets production lines improve over time while ensuring process compliance and quality assurance.
Private 5G networks offer the perfect connectivity for these complex environments. Indoor and outdoor spaces are well connected and secure. Densely populated areas of event fans and guests have access to Wi-Fi without interfering with critical stadium functions like push-to-talk handheld devices for staff, video surveillance for security, Point Of Sale support for tickets and concessionaires, and maintenance infrastructure.
As healthcare becomes more connected with data, devices, and third-party services, private 5G can safely meet the healthcare mission. Critical life support devices require uninterrupted connectivity. Real-time diagnostics must deliver an immediate response to doctors, surgeons, and emergency staff. Data access to medical devices, records, staff, and third parties must be assured while protecting privacy and compliance requirements. And the institutions themselves must be protected from outside forces threatening ransomware extortion. These applications and more can be achievable with private 5G networks.
Storefront retailers are seeking to deliver more personalized experiences as a way of competing with online shopping. Private 5G networks can provide innovative next-gen technologies like augmented/virtual reality for “magic mirror” dressing rooms, personalized in-store digital signage, and interactive maps offering improved customer service experiences to shoppers. Other 5G-enabled applications include advanced data analytics like video and pattern recognition of shoppers, plus inventory tracking and predictive purchasing data that can improve supply chain efficiencies.
Which “Wi” should you choose?
The best solution for your enterprise connectivity should address both short- and long-term needs. Carefully examine the performance criteria critical to your specific needs and budget. Designing a complex high-performance communications network can be a daunting task and you probably don’t have access to all the answers on staff. So, find an experienced partner who can advise and inform you along the way. A managed service provider like Betacom can help.
Betacom will plan, design, install and manage the daily operations of your network with 5G as a Service (5GaaS). Your network is backed 24×7 by our Security and Service Operations Center that addresses any connectivity and security issues, leaving your team free to focus on your business.
Choosing to grow and advance is in our DNA. Each day, more high-performance enterprises are making the technology leap toward digital transformation. So, whatever the goals and aspirations of your enterprise, private wireless technology can help you get there.
Learn more about private wireless solutions from these resources: