Is Private LTE/5G Better than Wi-Fi?

It’s a seemingly simple question: “Is private LTE/5G a better enterprise mobility solution than Wi-Fi?” In formulating an answer, however, it becomes clear how unfair that question really is. You can certainly compare cellular and Wi-Fi networks, but it’s largely an oranges-to-apples comparison because the two technologies have strengths and weaknesses. So instead of landing on a definitive answer, let’s explore those differences and hopefully show that both Wi-Fi and cellular have their place in today’s connected enterprise.

Let’s first address the elephant in the room: cost. There is a clear bias among enterprises that Wi-Fi is cheaper than a private 4G/5G network. Depending on the application, however, the opposite may be true. A private 4G/5G network can be less expensive than installing a Wi-Fi network, particularly for applications where scale and service level assurance are needed. This lays the groundwork for any readers who might be thinking “We can’t afford a private 5G network.” With the expanse of mobile connectivity and new business applications being developed for wireless technology each day, the reality may soon be that you can’t afford not to have a private LTE/5G network.

Six Key Criteria for Enterprise Mobility Solutions

Typically, enterprises have bought wireless coverage the way homeowners buy carpet: by the foot. Measuring out square feet, however, can trip up enterprises when it comes to building enterprise mobility solutions. Coverage is only one aspect of the solution, albeit an important one. There are, in fact, six key criteria that enterprises need to measure when evaluating wireless technology.

Application

Let’s start with the most obvious question first—ie, why do you need a wireless network in the first place? Wi-Fi networks are usually the result of IT-driven initiatives, such as providing connectivity as an extension of the LAN. The emphasis is on delivering best-effort connectivity at a relatively low cost with minimal complexity. Private mobile networks, on the other hand, are usually outcome-focused and driven by an operations team to support a specific use case where security, reliability and performance are critical.

Architecture

Wi-Fi networks feature a simple architecture; you can pretty much plug in your access points and routers, set up a password and you’re ready to roll. A private 4G/5G network is a more complex architecture with specific network functions in the core and RAN network that need to be addressed and managed. At first glance, it might appear to imply that private mobile networks are always more expensive. Depending on the deployment requirements and objective, however, a private mobile network may actually be cheaper to deploy.

Coverage

At its heart, Wi-Fi is an interference avoidance technology—although, with Wi-Fi 6, some interference mitigation schemes have been introduced. Furthermore, Wi-Fi must operate in an unlicensed shared spectrum. Accordingly, the transmit power allowed for Wi-Fi access points (APs) is low and limits an AP’s coverage area. You can get much better range with a cellular network because the licensed 4G/LTE/5G spectrum has a higher transmission power. For example, you may be able to deploy a single 5G transmitter instead of a dozen (or more) Wi-Fi APs, which is one of the ways that 4G/5G can end up being more cost-effective than Wi-Fi in the long run.

Mobility

In Wi-Fi networks, a device cannot be associated or connected to two APs at the same time, resulting in a “break-before-make” handover with little coordination between APs to facilitate that handover. Furthermore, the technology only supports nomadic roaming. The resource coordination schemes and seamless roaming in LTE/5G networks give a performance edge over Wi-Fi networks. This make LTE/5G a much better choice for applications where seamless mobility is critical, such as an automated manufacturing floor or an airport where coverage areas may change over time.

Performance (Throughput/Latency)

Both Wi-Fi 6 and 4G/5G networks provide high throughput and low latency, particularly at mmWave spectrum for 5G. Overall, Wi-Fi performance is more susceptible to interference as the technology is based on interference avoidance. Wi-Fi 6 looks to solve some of those interference issues with an improved “listen before talk” mechanism, which allows access points to leverage an Overlapping Basic Service Sets (OBSS) feature that uniquely identify themselves using a “color.” This Wi-Fi 6 feature, coupled with the new OFDMA technology, improves reliability and lowers latency, but the interference mitigation schemes in LTE/5G are still superior as it is built for interference mitigation.

As you add more users, you begin to see degraded performance in Wi-Fi systems with higher latencies and jitter. 4G/5G systems maintain high performance, ultra-low latency and good jitter performance even under high workloads due to better resource coordination and allocation schemes. Although both technologies offer good throughput and latency, the performance (especially jitter performance) is superior in LTE/5G, especially under load and when crossing cell boundaries.

Security

The last (but certainly not the least) consideration is network security. Wi-Fi networks have good security features—which have gotten even better with Wi-Fi 6—but are still vulnerable to AP-phishing, hacks and denial-of-service attacks because they’re using an unlicensed spectrum. The “private” aspect of a private 4G/5G means enterprise data stays within the enterprise with very strong, built-in encryption at several layers to prevent hacking and unauthorized packet snooping/sniffing.

Wi-Fi or Private LTE/5G? Why Not Both

As you can see, both wireless technologies have their strengths. Combining the two technologies could make your enterprise even stronger. You may decide that Wi-Fi is great for day-to-day network connectivity but the business operations of your enterprise manufacturing facilities or retail locations would benefit from stronger coverage with enforceable SLAs. Alternatively, your business operations may require seamless mobility on-premise and/or with the broader city- or country-wide cellular network. Dell Technologies has you covered either way.

For a more in-depth discussion, please review our recent white paper Navigating Private Mobility. To learn more about how Dell is improving the future of enterprise mobility, visit us our Telecom solutions page.

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