Wi-Fi’s Importance Reaffirmed as Wi-Fi and 5G Private Network Convergence Strategies Emerge

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By Andrew Spivey | 2Q 2022 | IN-6542

Despite prior concerns that Wi-Fi would be overtaken by cellular networks, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the two are more likely to compliment each other rather than compete.

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Cisco is Joining the Bandwagon


Cisco’s announcement that its Private 5G solution will integrate with Wi-Fi was one of the most significant news stories to emerge from this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC). This cloud-based private 5G subscription service will offer 5G- and Industrial-Internet of Things (IoT) network management and integration with Cisco’s identity and policy system, will be based on Open Radio Access Network (RAN) principles that drive the interoperability of multivendor cellular network equipment, and will leverage the best of both Wi-Fi and 5G for optimal performance. In a blog post accompanying the MWC 2022 unveiling, Masum Mir, Vice President and General Manager of Cisco’s Mobile, Cable, and IoT business at Cisco, stressed that there are many attractive use cases for introducing private 5G alongside Wi-Fi, writing that “you don’t have to choose between 5G and Wi-Fi – you can use both”. With this announcement Cisco has joined the growing collection of companies, spanning both fixed networking and cellular operators, who are working on incorporating Wi-Fi into 5G Private Networks. This industry trend suggests that rather than one technology eclipsing the other, as some premature predictions had projected, the two technologies are in fact complimentary.

Wi-Fi Apples and 5G Oranges


Private Wireless Networks, which, as the name suggests, are networks exclusively controlled by the organization that owns them, are nothing new. Private Networks based on 802.11 technology, otherwise known as Wi-Fi, have reliably served a variety of enterprises for decades, ranging from users within campuses to manufacturing plants. Wi-Fi networks are relatively simple to both deploy and maintain, and as IT departments are invariably already familiar with the technology, there are countless off-the-shelf devices available, there is no need for the licensing of spectrum, and each generation is compatible with the last. Whilst the 802.11 standards were not specifically devised for industrial environments, subsequent iterations and proprietary protocols have meant that most environments can now be served by the technology. There still remain some distinct weaknesses of Wi-Fi, which is where 5G private networks come into the picture. 5G offers low latency rates of 1 ms with Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication (URRLC), can connect up to one million devices per square kilometer thanks to Massive Machine-Type Communication (mMTC), and the use of licensed spectrum means that 5G is less prone to signal interference than Wi-Fi. Another strength of cellular is in the realm of security, as 5G Private Networks are encrypted and require an appropriate Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) credential to access. Finally, 5G is also better positioned to serve remote or hard to reach areas, particularly those lacking existing Wi-Fi infrastructure. Yet, 5G too has its drawbacks. The costs of establishing private 5G networks is significantly greater than that of Wi-Fi, they are more complex to operate, cellular standards do not offer compatibility with the generations that preceded or will follow them, and enterprises typically don’t have the familiarity with the technology as they do with Wi-Fi.

Directly comparing the two technologies is like comparing apples to oranges. Where Wi-Fi is cheap, simple, and well established, 5G is expensive, complex, and nascent. One is the mainstay of enterprise networking technology companies, while the other is evangelized by cellular operators. Although some early predictions had forecasted that one technology would end up eclipsing the other, it is now becoming apparent that not only will Wi-Fi and cellular coexist together, but that there will be many use cases where the two technologies will act to complement each other, and ultimately may indeed converge. While the dominance of Wi-Fi in the traditional IT carpeted enterprises will not be dislodged (none of the attributes of 5G will appeal to office managers, not to mention the prohibitive costs and complexity involved in the migration to cellular), industrial OT environments requiring high capacity, impeccable reliability, impenetrable security, and ultra-low latency will be ripe for 5G cellular connectivity. Verticals include oil and gas, energy and power, mining, intelligent transportation, industrial manufacturing, warehousing and logistics, and healthcare, with the latter three expected to undergo the greatest levels of penetration. It is businesses operating in these environments who must ensure the smooth operation of mission critical applications that will be yearning the most for solutions which leverage the best of both Wi-Fi and cellular.

It is in this context that Cisco made its MWC announcement on its private 5G/Wi-Fi network. Cisco is not alone in driving the convergence. Aruba has developed Air Pass, a service built upon Passpoint and Wi-Fi calling which enables seamless cellular roaming to private enterprise Wi-Fi networks. Additionally, at MWC 2022 the parent company of Aruba Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) also discussed it’s Private 5G offering, which will see private 5G equipment integrated into Aruba Wi-Fi infrastructure, with subscribers accessing the service via the company’s Edge-to-Cloud platform HPE GreenLake. In 2021, Siemens made their foray into the space by releasing their first industrial 5G router, the SCALANCE MUM856-1, which is targeted at remote maintenance solutions and connecting factory floors for data-intensive applications. Dell has also been rapidly grown its Telecom Systems Business in recent years. In a late 2021 blog post Marco Castanheira, head of Services Edge Marketing for Dell Technologies’ Telecom Systems Business, referred to 5G as “essential to the enterprise digital transformation journey”, and urged enterprises to begin making plans for incorporating 5G into their private Wi-Fi networks.

At the same time, cellular operators are increasingly branching out into the Wi-Fi domain. The likes of AT&T and Nokia are participating alongside Cisco and Aruba in the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s (WBA) 5G & Wi-Fi Convergence in Private 5G Networks work group. In March 2022 Verizon unveiled its private 5G network solution, offered in partnership with 5G technology company Celona, which promises to offer Small- and Medium-sized Businesses (SMBs) an easy to deploy 5G networks that ties in seamlessly with their Wi-Fi LAN environment. Alongside this, numerous technologies companies are actively working on innovative solutions that are driving the convergence. For example, also exhibiting at MWC 2022 was Tessares with its demonstration of 5G/Wi-Fi handover performance on their “over the core” ATSSS solution. Further, Boingo is deploying networks in locations such as airports which use Wi-Fi for connectivity and 5G for backhaul. The broad industry interest in solutions that combine Wi-Fi and 5G is a testament to its highly promising future. Evidently, we are now transitioning to a world in which it is not only technically possible for Wi-Fi and Cellular to coexist in the same Private Network, but to one where in many applications it is becoming a vital solution.

The Coming Wi-Fi and 5G Convergence


Before getting swept up in the Wi-Fi and 5G convergence hype, it is important to acknowledge that most enterprises currently have preexisting private Wi-Fi networks in place and are unlikely to consider migrating to 4G or 5G unless the inherent drawbacks of Wi-Fi technology are directly impacting their business outcomes. For carpeted IT enterprises there is a broad consensus that Wi-Fi alone will continue to be sufficient. In contrast, within the Industrial OT domain the Wi-Fi and cellular (5G) convergence really comes to the fore. Wi-Fi offers a simple, versatile, scalable, and familiar solution, whilst 5G’s mobility, extended range, and low-latency rates are ideal to plug the gaps in Wi-Fi’s abilities in environments straddling indoor and outdoor locations, as well as mission critical applications which necessitate ultra-low latency levels. As we shift to Industry 4.0, the needs to leverage both solutions will only further increase. This will especially be the case for OT applications which require long ranges and ultra-low levels of latency, notably Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV), Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR), AMR Visual Fusion, Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR). Whilst tailored Industrial Wireless LAN solutions can be devised for these use cases, the collaboration of Wi-Fi and cellular can produce superior outcomes. Any vendor who wishes to continue serving these markets with Private Networks should invest into research into the partnering technology of their 5G or Wi-Fi solution, and/or identify strategic partners who they can collaborate with to devise their Wi-Fi/5G Private Network service. Vendors who are complacent and stick to one technology may soon be overshadowed by providers who can deploy solutions that can leverage the best of both technologies.

To accelerate the convergence of Wi-Fi and Cellular there remains several key challenges that need to be overcome. The first challenge revolves around network implementation. The vast majority of IT departments, whose role it is to oversee the deployment and maintenance of an organizations network infrastructure, have extensive experience with Wi-Fi, but are typically unaccustomed to cellular technologies. Therefore the IT administrators, architects, and security officers of organizations will demand that the management of cellular be the same as the Wi-Fi that they are familiar with. Key to satisfying this request is the integration of the two technologies, and whether it is devised in a way that will help eliminate manual labor, simplify network troubleshooting, and facilitate automation. Another core challenge to address is that of how users will connect to the network. Whether the connection be achieved via Wi-Fi or through the use of eSIMs, it is imperative that the experience is seamless for the user.