Private 5G vs Wi-Fi vs Private LTE
With the advent of (private) 5G solutions, there is a new alternative to Wi-Fi or private LTE for businesses looking at wireless networking solutions. This article breaks down each technology and compares their various strengths and weaknesses.
Private 5G is arriving with a lot of promise about enabling new, innovative use cases that will bring great value to enterprises across different industries such as manufacturing, mining, logistics etc. However, private LTE today is already satisfying the needs of a growing number of enterprises, and many others are questioning the need to branch out beyond Wi-Fi into private cellular networking. As evidenced from our recent research and survey with over 200+ enterprises globally in key sectors, Wi-Fi is still widely deployed today across different industries by enterprises of all sizes. Each form of connectivity, whether that be Wi-Fi or industrial ethernet or private 5G, has its own capabilities that is suited to support different types of use cases.
Figure 1: Comparing the different capabilities of wireless networking solutions
Wi-Fi is the wireless networking technology that is probably most well-known, given its widespread use in home and office settings, most widely-deployed and the most familiar to enterprises. Wi-Fi was invented in 1997 when IEEE802. 11 was created which refers to a set of standards that define communication for wireless local area networks (WLANs).
Wireless devices connect with a wireless router either directly (as is the case in most consumer settings) or indirectly through a wireless access point (when more devices need to be connected). The wireless router is what connects you to the internet via cable. Fixed wireless access is becoming a more popular solution with 5G, which connects your wireless router to the internet via mobile network.
Wi-Fi is an older technology than both private LTE and private 5G, but it does have some advantages over both these solutions. It is relatively cheap to install and maintain, and deployment involves minimal disruption. The next generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6, also promises theoretical speeds of 9.6Gbps, more than double that of its predecessor Wi-Fi 5 at 3.5 Gbps. For offices and homes, Wi-Fi is more than sufficient for wireless network requirements.
However, Wi-Fi does have weaknesses that make it inappropriate for some enterprise and industrial settings. Security is not very high; all hackers need is the SSID (network name) and password to enter so other means of ensuring security may be required to meet certain requirements. Range can also be a problem on large sites, as well as seamless mobility if you have devices or ‘things’ moving from one access point to another. It can also be prone to interference and unreliable where outdoor or hybrid (indoor-outdoor) coverage is needed.
Wi-Fi is an excellent wireless technology, appropriate for work, office, and most enterprise settings. With the introduction of Wi-Fi 6 it will deliver faster speeds and continue to fulfil the wireless networking needs of the majority. However, there are contexts in which Wi-Fi is not reliable enough, and this is where private LTE has filled the gap so far.
Private LTE solutions have increasingly been deployed in manufacturing, mining, ports, campuses, and other large enterprise operational sites. A private LTE network uses dedicated spectrum as well as dedicated operating functions and/or assets. For example, the radio, core and management functions can run on the enterprise’s own infrastructure or can run off infrastructure that is shared.
Private LTE can use licensed, unlicensed, or shared spectrum. Licensed spectrum is provided by mobile carriers, unlicensed spectrum can be accessed by anyone, and shared spectrum is spectrum that is licensed but shared (e.g. CBRS).
There are clear security and reliability advantages to operating your own private cellular network which make private LTE attractive to security-sensitive and/or mission critical industries such as defence, manufacturing, and extractives. Some of these industries may also have remote outdoor sites that would not be covered by public networks and problematic for Wi-Fi, so coverage is another benefit. They also overcome the mobility restrictions of Wi-Fi and can handle significantly greater capacity. Wi-Fi can also be prone to interference, for example when there are welding processes or heavy presence of metal, which is problematic when mission critical use cases depend on reliable connectivity.
However, these benefits come with potential challenges around internal enterprise expertise and cost. Most enterprises also do not have the cellular networking know-how, the number of Wi-Fi specialists working in private networking far exceeds the number of cellular specialists. So unlike Wi-Fi, which can likely be maintained and installed adequately by in-house teams, private LTE may require greater managed services from a vendor partner or systems integrator. The capabilities of private LTE over Wi-Fi may make it tempting for many businesses however, depending on the use case requirements, Wi-Fi is often sufficient and the few instances that require higher security or speeds can often be catered for by cable (e.g. industrial ethernet).
The cost element depends significantly on the cost to deploy and manage a private LTE network versus Wi-Fi. In an extremely large factory for example where you would need extensive coverage, the number of Wi-Fi access points required to provide that level of coverage can also become prohibitive, compared to the number of access points required with private LTE.
There are many use cases that have emerged over recent years that require higher bandwidth, lower latency, and higher reliability than private LTE can necessarily provide. In industries where these use cases can bring great economic value, private 5G solutions are being explored.
Private 5G will deliver lower latency and higher bandwidth, reliability than previous iterations of mobile technology. Much of the general hype surrounding 5G has been around exciting new use cases, and this is no different in the private networking space. Industries want to implement value-adding use cases that had not been possible before.
Private 5G improves on private LTE in several areas, including higher bandwidth, mobility, and lower latency, and can support a much greater density of devices. These improved capabilities enable new use cases and significantly augment others, such as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), AR/VR/MR, wireless robots, and drone or UAV inspections or repairs.
However, in many cases, private LTE can be more than sufficient to meet enterprise requirements, and has already been doing so in industries such as mining and ports. Therefore, it is important for enterprises to ensure that they really need the capabilities that private 5G brings. Many use cases can be supported sufficiently by wired connection or by other, less expensive wireless connections. Moreover, many of the new use cases enabled by 5G have not been commercially deployed beyond trials, so it is important for enterprises assess what their key current and future requirements and use cases are and whether or not 5G fits into that roadmap.
It is not an either-or situation
The challenge today is that enterprises often deploy several different types of connectivity solutions, each linked to a specific application or use case, and therefore have to manage the complexity of having fragmented systems and a large number of interfaces. This also results in a higher overall total cost of ownership.
The reality is that private cellular networks (LTE or 5G) will continue to co-exist with Wi-Fi and other connectivity solutions. We refer to this combination of different fixed and wireless connectivity solutions as hybrid networking, and we expect that this will continue for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, enterprises should focus on understanding where and when each connectivity solution is best suited, find potential network synergies and take advantage of any opportunity for consolidation.
Author: Matt Bamforth is a consultant at STL Partners, specialising in edge computing, private networks, and 5G