Wireless business connectivity: what are the options?
Wireless connectivity plays a central role in increasing businesses' agility, and choosing between 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi 6 is becoming more tricky as mobile technologies evolve. Here, we explore the different options available to businesses, and key things to take into account during decision making.
Over the last decade, wireless-first technologies have gained widespread adoption. During this time, wireless business connectivity has been used for connecting with customers and for making operations more agile, and generally relied on:
- Two wireless technologies, 4G LTE and Wi-Fi 4/5, playing different roles in supporting professional users
- A universal connectivity model with all services treated equally and delivered over the top of a broadband connection
- Universal 4G coverage, indoors and outdoors, with Wi-Fi focused on hotspots indoors
- 4G as the primary access for smartphones, with an offload of data traffic to Wi-Fi in homes and offices
- Wi-Fi used as the primary access for laptops and tablets with integrated 4G adopted by road-warriors travelling extensively for business
- 4G offered with bucket-based and unlimited data plans. Free Wi-Fi for end users in public environments, subsidized by adjacent businesses, and provided as a managed IT service at business premises.
Entering a wireless-only market
The introduction of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and the evolution of 4G, are moving us beyond wireless-first and into a wireless-only market. New spectrum bands enable performance gaps to be eliminated in wired networks, making wireless-only a realistic aspiration. We also need to rethink where we use cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi beyond the indoor/outdoor demarcation line. Finally, these developments also allow us to explore business model innovation beyond universal connectivity with traffic-based charges or free services.
Businesses benefit from understanding how these technologies can be used differently from before — and by challenging simplistic views that “generation” six is better than five and four. Also, they must also move away from the assumption that the choice is between generations, rather than finding the optimal combination.
The evolution of Wi-Fi connectivity for business purposes
Wi-Fi is the workhorse for offloading high volumes of low-value data traffic from smartphones with no/low requirements tied to performance. This use case today takes place in both offices and homes. Smartphone providers have supported this evolution by introducing Wi-Fi 6 support early on 5G smartphones.
Before the pandemic outbreak, we had a clear separation of connectivity models for laptops and tablets at home and in offices - based on managed local Wi-Fi networks in offices and self-supported residential wireless LANs at home. This model worked well when working from the office was the norm.
A long, slow and partial return of information workers to offices will force businesses to rethink their connectivity strategies based on two central themes:
- What should drive office upgrades from Wi-Fi 5 to Wi-Fi 6 when a substantial reduction of staff in offices slows down Wi-Fi traffic growth?
- How shall businesses support a growing share of the workforce working remotely in homes and alternative work locations?
Adopting Wi-Fi 5 has for industrial applications has raised some issues with performance, security and reliability. This partly a result of technology issues, and partly down to the network build and operational models.
The evolution of Wi-Fi is different for large enterprises, with ethernet VPNs over fiber already connecting businesses and an IT partner managing the local Wi-Fi network on multi-year terms. Managed Wi-Fi agreements typically match the life cycles for a Wi-Fi generation.
The scenario for local Wi-Fi networks in small and medium businesses differs as fiber to the business premises is not the norm. The size of each business location makes self-supported Wi-Fi networks the primary option, while VPN support for remote workers is less mature.
Businesses can evolve the Wi-Fi portion of their wireless connectivity network to Wi-Fi 6/6E or milk the Wi-Fi 4/5 installations and invest in remote working options as the short-to-medium term priority.
The evolution of cellular connectivity for business purposes
The interest from businesses for cellular connectivity is multi-facetted. The connectivity categories generating the most attention right now can be summarized as follows:
Both 4G and 5G are attractive for these business applications. The evolution path that 4G follows makes it worth considering it as being in the first year for novel applications, rather than year 10 for mature applications. It also has a unique advantage in the form of omnipresent wireless coverage that no other wireless technology can match. For these reasons, 4G is a great starting point for many business use cases. This journey can start today with off-the-shelf technology in networks and devices.
To enhance 4G use cases or launch new ones that require higher network performance, , 5G may be a better option. The 5G options operating in the low and mid-band spectrum provide incremental performance improvements compared to 4G. The more radical performance shifts come with 5G in the high band spectrum.
Cellular connectivity operates in licensed spectrum, with new complements such as citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) adding a new shared spectrum option.
5G or Wi-Fi 6 for indoor applications
A new paper from Ericsson addresses the market realities for 5G and Wi-Fi 6 in indoor applications. The paper puts the spotlight on where 5G and Wi-Fi 6 complement each other and compete when limiting deployments to one technology.
When it comes to business comparisons between the two technologies, a few differences stand out. Both technologies provide a comparable total cost of ownership (TCO), but the cost structure varies. The cost breakdown for Wi-Fi is 43 percent for CAPEX and 57 percent for OPEX. CAPEX includes the equipment and installation and OPEX covers support, helpdesk and onsite IT. The cellular cost breakdown is 65 percent (CAPEX) and 35 percent (OPEX). With the difference in the number of radios required, Wi-Fi needs four times as many radios than a cellular installation. This 4X multiplier is an important business and cost differentiator.
When looking at the underlying technology, three factors stand out. 5G uses a licensed or unlicensed spectrum, and Wi-Fi 6 uses unlicensed only. The unlicensed spectrum does not allow you to control performance or reliability in the same way that a licensed spectrum does. The second major difference is the security implications: 5G uses an end-to-end approach across the whole system, while Wi-Fi relies on WPA-based security. The security level that comes with 5G is a big leap forward from 4G.
Embracing one, two or three wireless options
Our task is to help businesses navigate this new landscape where major technology leaps, business model innovations, and adoption of novel spectrum types make “apples to apples” comparisons difficult. Critical questions for service providers and businesses to consider as part of the decision process are:
- Do we pursue a wireless first endgame (with fixed complements) or do we aim for a wireless-only target (with one or several wireless options in play)?
- Which wireless option, 4G, 5G or Wi-Fi6 can we live without, if we can only afford two?
- Which game-changing capabilities do our prioritized use cases need now?
- Will our strategy be constrained by the network (coverage and availability) or devices (niche IoT segments)?
- Do we have a strong business model preference for a dedicated private network, a hybrid public-private, or a slice of a public network?
- What is our vision for the future of our company, and our industry?
By considering these questions, you have a strong foundation for selecting a suitable combination of 4G, 5G, and Wi-Fi 6 to support your strategic connectivity network direction. Applications and devices will remain relevant and edge computing is a new part of the puzzle, but businesses' wireless connectivity choices will still have a big impact on future competitiveness.
Want to know more?
This post is part of our 5G Practitioner’s Guide where we outline nine strategic conversations service providers should have in 2020 to accelerate 5G for business. Investing time in these topics will make you better equipped to engage in 5G dialogues with your business customers.
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