Enterprise Wireless Networks Now and in the Future

Author: Andrew Spivey

Once the go-to solution for an enterprise wireless network, Wi-Fi 5 is nearing its demise. By 2025, Wi-Fi 5 will be near obsolete, as Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and Wi-Fi 7 offer superior performance in a world where enterprises introduce more and more connected devices to their work environments. To avoid getting caught off-guard, equipment vendors must learn where the greatest demands lie within the world of Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) network solutions.

Enterprise Wireless Network Protocols

Of the 13.94 million enterprise Access Points (APs) shipped in 2022, 87% of them will come with either Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 protocols, which are dual-band. Wi-Fi 6E (tri-brand) will make up the rest of the shipments for the year. But what’s interesting is that companies seeking an enterprise wireless network solution will almost certainly not even consider Wi-Fi 5 by the time 2026 comes around, as tri-brand becomes more preferred.

Initially, Wi-Fi 6E will suffice as the de facto option for enterprises seeking a tri-brand wireless network. However, Wi-Fi 7 will slowly take over the domain by 2026, when the next-gen protocol will account for two out of every three shipments of 6 GHz-enabled enterprise APs that year. Still, it should be noted that dual-core Wi-Fi 6 will remain the overall leader in enterprise AP shipments worldwide as the market aligns itself closer with tri-brand protocols.

Chart of Enterprise Access Point Shipments by Protocol

Wi-Fi 6 versus Wi-Fi 6E

Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E are nearly on parity across the board, but the main difference between the two wireless network solutions is that Wi-Fi 6E leverages the 6 GHz spectrum. The 6 GHz spectrum is a big step in the right direction as it provides clearer connection, less congestion and interference, and can handle larger sums of data at low latencies. Currently, the availability of Wi-Fi 6E is shoddy due to limited device compatibility and hesitance from some regions.

The Nature of Enterprise Wireless Networks

Typically, IT wireless network equipment can be used off-the-shelf, is suitable for nearly every IT environment, is scalable, and the network is replaced every 3 to 5 years. For IT, enterprises are much more likely to adopt solutions with new Wi-Fi protocols because IT is so interwound with frontend business processes and peak performance is top-of-mind. IT networks also deal heavily with security and privacy.

Historically, Wi-Fi has been a more suitable solution for IT networks than OT networks because Wi-Fi was never designed with an industrial environment as the focus. Instead, Wi-Fi is more geared toward the residential and Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) segments. Because OT wireless networks require a more personalized approach, enterprises are hesitant to upgrade. Therefore, OT network lifecycles range between 15 and 30 years.

To address the unique needs of industrial workflows, such as network resilience in rough external environments, OT Wi-Fi equipment is developed with specific use cases in mind. Although a tailor-made solution is optimal, OT networks lack the scalability of an IT network. If OT Wi-Fi is ever going to rival IT Wi-Fi, equipment vendors must find breakthrough ways to make their solutions more flexible in industrial OT applications.

Due to the highly customized approach necessitated by an enterprise OT wireless network, associated costs are higher than IT deployments. Compared to the US$400 for a typical indoor IT wireless network, an indoor OT wireless network sits around the US$1,100 price point. For outdoor networks, IT deployments cost around US$590 on the low-end, US$970 for mid-range, and US$1,700 for the high-end. And outdoor OT networks cost US$2,200, on average.

Market Differences between IT and OT Enterprise Wireless Network Solutions

While the OT segment is happy with using legacy protocols like Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5, the IT segment is more inclined to adopt newer protocols quickly. To exemplify this fact, consider the difference between the protocols used by IT equipment vendors and OT vendors, as found in Tables 1 and 2. As ABI Research notes, all enterprise IT vendors support Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E, but only one vendor (Siemens) supports Wi-Fi 6 in the OT space. And not a single OT equipment vendor supports Wi-Fi 6E.

Some of the companies offering enterprise Wi-Fi 6E APs include:

  • Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise
  • Arista
  • Aruba
  • Cisco
  • Extreme Networks
  • Huawei
  • Juniper Networks

802.11 protocols supported by enterprise wireless networks


Wi-Fi 7 in the Enterprise Wireless Network

Wi-Fi 7, also called 802.11be, will be Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)-certified by early 2024 and takes the 6 GHz spectrum to an entirely new level. Some of the most exciting features of Wi-Fi 7 include Multi-Link Operation (MLO) and preamble puncturing. MLO allows devices to use multiple bands on different frequencies to deliver faster speeds and reduce network congestion. For enterprise use cases that require high throughput and ultra-low latency, such as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Extended Reality (XR) applications, Wi-Fi 7 will be at the top of the list of wireless network options because of its predictability and reliability.

As would be expected of a brand new technology, Wi-Fi 7 enterprise AP shipments are very low at the moment (50,000 shipments in 2022). Many companies want to get the most out of their existing enterprise wireless network, especially Wi-Fi 6E adopters, before migrating to Wi-Fi 7. However, as demand for industrial devices with Wi-Fi enablement increases rapidly in the coming years, such as smart glasses and mobile robots, the next-gen protocol will grab a firmer foothold on the enterprise AP market by 2025, and only grow larger as time goes on.

Next Steps

Traditionally, IT and OT tech stacks have been separated, making collaboration extremely difficult. A Network Management System (NMS) is a solution that helps bridge the gap as it helps enterprises centralize the management and direction of IT and OT applications. Beyond that, equipment vendors in the enterprise wireless network domain clearly need to diversify their product portfolio as network needs are all over the map. While IT teams and niche OT sub-segments, will undoubtedly turn to Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 in quick fashion, the broader OT market will be slower to adopt these protocols. The key to winning over the OT vertical is providing customized and flexible solutions that are designed with an industrial use case in mind.

These findings come from ABI Research’s Enterprise Wi-Fi and the Path to IT/OT & 5G/Wi-Fi Private Network Convergence. This research comes from the company’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth & Wireless Connectivity Research Service.