As IoT devices proliferate, they will rapidly put considerable stress on today’s leading communication technologies – Wi-Fi 5 and 4G.

We are familiar with these technologies because they are used to connect our personal devices like phones, tablets, and cars. But they are also used in business applications like office buildings (more recently as we work from home) and Operational Technology (OT) or industrial applications, such as manufacturing, agriculture, or mining and metals, and more.

From personal experience, you may be aware that Wi-Fi 5 and 4G struggle with video-based consumer applications like Facetime, Skype, Zoom, Teams, etc. On the industrial side, HD video is being integrated into Industry 4.0 technologies like integrated video analytics (IVA) for quality control, facial recognition, traffic and parking automation, and emergency vehicle coordination. These emerging technologies require faster and higher data capacity and will most certainly rely on the much-hyped and most promising technologies – 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

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The year of early adopters? Not so fast

Based on the hype, most people believed that 2019 was the year of early adopters for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 technologies as well as associated, compatible, certified connectable devices. While it’s interesting that rollouts follow the same time schedule, the reality is that 2019 was actually more an early innovator or pre-early adopter phase. In fact, last year did usher in the introduction of just some Wi-Fi 6 certified products, as well as a smattering of very expensive 5G devices – mainly phones.

Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax (its previous naming convention), is the latest standard for wireless network transmissions, that is a backward-compatible upgrade over previous versions of Wi-Fi, meaning devices certified for earlier versions of Wi-Fi will work on Wi-Fi 6. “Upgrade” refers to the higher speed and the increased number of connected devices possible. Wi-Fi 6 is designed to offer speeds that are roughly 30 percent faster than Wi-Fi 5, with theoretical maximum transfer speeds up to around 10Gbps (providing the Internet service can deliver that speed, of course). It also connects to more devices, thanks to orthogonal frequency division multiple access, or OFDMA. OFDMA gives your Wi-Fi 6 router the ability to serve multiple clients at once within a single channel. Wi-Fi 6 will connect to the shared 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Wi-Fi 5 only operated on the 5GHz frequency. If a router supports 2.4GHz and 5GHz, it uses 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) on the 2.4GHz frequency and 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) on the 5GHz frequency. Wi-Fi 6 works across both frequencies and boosts performance at 2.4GHz.

An enabler of converged IoT at the Edge

I see Wi-Fi 6 as an enabler of converged IoT (putting IT into OT applications) at the edge, connecting and processing data from devices, such as IP security cameras, LED lighting, and digital signage with touch screen or voice commands. By becoming the new standard Wi-Fi in mesh networks for office buildings, it will be used for intelligent building management systems, occupancy sensors, access control (smart locks), smart parking, and fire detection and evacuation.

There has been no shortage of hype on 5G and its transformational potential for IoT use cases including virtual reality, autonomous driving, etc. It builds upon three pillars: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable low-latency (uRLLC), and massive device connectivity (mMTC). I should point out that 5G is also using a spectrum that operates under or at the low-end existing 4G LTE frequency range (typically 600 MHz) that some are calling “low band 5G”. “Low band 5G” delivers speed comparable to 4G LTE for mobile applications. The signal also goes for miles and is not subject to the propagation losses and inability to penetrate obstacles like trees, leaves, and walls as with “high band 5G”. Some cities actually removed trees in downtown areas for initial test deployments!

The real 5G buzz is about “high band 5G”, sometimes called 5G+. It operates in the new millimeter wave bands (24 to 86 GHz). This way, it delivers higher bandwidth, lower latency for real-time communications, and more capacity to enable many low-power IoT connections. 5G RANs (Radio Access Networks) need line-of-sight communication at relatively short distances. For 5G to function at its claimed performance level of 10Gbps and <1ms latency, a new network of edge data centers or Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) and RANs must be in place. For more detail, please see my previous blog on IT and Telco requirements for 5G deployment. The global estimate for the cost of the 5G rollout tops 1.3 trillion euro!

For applications that need the highest speed and reliability

5G will deliver on three technology pillars through which distinct new services can be managed:

  1. Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) for high throughput data transfer
  2. Massive IoT (mMTC) to connect large numbers of simple devices
  3. Ultra-reliable low-latency communication (uRLLC) networks to reliably support mission-critical applications

With these three pillars, 5G including edge computing MEC will be the preferred technology for applications that need the highest speed and reliability. This includes Industry 4.0 applications like RPA (Robotic Process Automation), robotic “extensions” for surgery, police, and military, holograms with virtual reality and immersive. 5G can also be used in high definition video dependent applications like in stadiums, automated warehouses, and shipyards. In-building applications will be more challenging because of the inability to penetrate solid surfaces like walls and high losses.

A more connected, digital, and automated world

The business model for 5G involves the service provider purchasing licensed spectrum. These service providers need to recover the expense of RAN and MEC by charging subscription fees for each connected device. In contrast, Wi-Fi leverages unlicensed spectrum, which is available to all for free. However, getting the internet connection to your application costs money, so the internet service provider charges a subscription fee for connection.

Another distinction between 5G and Wi-Fi: 5G devices require a SIM card which ensures devices are connected to subscriptions and don’t use the network illegally. But Wi-Fi devices operate on unlicensed spectrums. The mobile world is looking for ways to eliminate SIM cards but current soft SIM and eSIM technologies aren’t sufficiently secure yet.

5G or Wi-Fi 6 are the wireless data transport technologies which have the potential to enable a much more connected, digital, and automated world. Wi-Fi 6 has its roots in IT while 5G sprung from four previous generations of telco and the two need to do more than co-exist to deliver truly enhanced throughput, latency, connection density, coverage, and availability. The more interoperability and, dare I say, convergence between the two, the more they will deliver enhanced performance through increased visibility and improved transition management.