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Wi-Fi vs. Private 4G vs. Private 5G – How do Enterprises Make the Right Choice?

The coexistence of Wi-Fi with private mobile networks is inevitable as network demands grow with proliferating applications and devices.
Wi-Fi vs. Private 4G vs. Private 5G

by Zidan Lian, Head of Product

Networking requirements of enterprises are evolving with an expanding array of use cases ranging from unified communication for remote employees to business-critical applications such as device tracking and remote control of autonomous vehicles. No one network meets all needs. The default choice for customers is Wi-Fi for its proven value of low cost, simplicity, and ease of use. Private mobile networks have widened the choice of networks available to the enterprise, and they address use cases more demanding of bandwidth availability, coverage range, security, mobility and more. However, private networks’ perceived cost and complexity have deterred their broader adoption.   

It is not a stark, either or, choice. Wi-Fi is inexpensive and satisfactory for business Internet connectivity unless more demanding applications such as unified communications or mission critical AI/ML/IoT applications cause network congestion and negatively impact the quality of experience for all applications. Co-existing private cellular networks offering high availability with reliable and highly secure connectivity relieve the congestion by concentrating on some use cases, such as video conferencing, while improving the quality of service for other digital applications like point of sale. Network architects increasingly need to consider each network’s entire set of attributes and how, when, and where Wi-Fi, Private 4G, and Private 5G serve the use cases of enterprise customers.     

Private 5G

Weaknesses of Dominant Wi-Fi Networks Surface   

Wi-Fi use exploded with smartphone traffic; its capacity is stretched with the rising number of users attracted by its low costs. As a result, users suffer increasing interference, slower speeds, and network crashes. 

Handovers occur more frequently as the surface area of communications expands, and the signals cross multiple access points with a growing risk of signal drops. The risk is aggravated with remote control of moving objects, such as autonomous vehicles, which move from one end of a facility to another and need signal handovers repeatedly. 

Newer generations of Wi-Fi 6 access points meet the expanded capacity needs of smartphones and other applications. Wi-Fi 6 can process a higher throughput of 1 Gbps, making it popular in smartphone-dense environments such as sports stadiums and large venues. It claims to cut latencies by as much as 75% for a better experience with interactive video applications. Interference in Wi-Fi 6 networks is significantly reduced by carrying traffic through dozens of channels parallelly. 

However, in industrial environments, with thousands of sensors and devices, the throughput of Wi-Fi 6 is greatly reduced, and latencies are higher. As a result, the Wi-Fi network needs more access points. 

Moreover, Wi-Fi signals operate with low power in milliwatts—they cannot easily penetrate walls. Cellular signals, by contrast, have much higher power to penetrate through barriers like walls, trees, or other structural elements. 

Introduce Private Mobile Networks with 4G

Private 4G initially found favor from public safety agencies and the railways seeking reliable communications, which Wi-Fi could not provide. Digitally transformed enterprises require the same degree of reliability and mobility for the execution of automation functions using real-time data. For the consistent quality of services, industries need data processed with deterministic speeds and latency

The average throughput and latency performance of Wi-Fi 6, Private 4G/5G overlap for the requirements of some use cases. Only private 4G/5G-based mobile networks can provide higher range deterministic performance for mission-critical applications. For example, they can support remotely controlled mobile objects such as autonomous vehicles and robots with low-latency controls. Private mobile networks allow users to implement policies to achieve the desired quality of service for each device and application. 

Private 4G networks in the early days can help improve service quality for business-critical applications like VoIP/ Unified Communications, especially as their volumes have exploded with remote work, device tracking, and industrial automation applications. As a result, the quality of service of Wi-Fi networks also improves as some of the traffic moves to private mobile networks.

Cellular networks allow wireless connectivity over a larger circumference using far fewer access points than Wi-Fi. The larger coverage span simplifies the private mobile network for airports, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, healthcare, and education that need secure and ubiquitous connectivity to coordinate indoor and outdoor digital operations. 

Additionally, private mobile networks enhance security by restricting entry to devices with authenticated SIM cards embedded in user devices. Credential-based security becomes administratively untenable with IoT devices and numerous other types of standard devices as their numbers grow with widespread adoption. By contrast, private mobile networks provide gateways that connect with individual devices automatically, identified with their SIM cards.  

Don’t Wait for 5G to Mature

5G promises to provide maximum download speeds from 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps, and latency as low as one millisecond — the actual numbers vary and depend on the location and networks. According to Open Signal, the actual numbers can be as low as 49.1 Mbps and as high as 150 Mbps in public networks.

By contrast, the maximum speeds for 4G are in the range of 300 Mbps-1Gbps and latency in the range of 10-20 milliseconds. The actual average  speed ranges from 15 Mbps to over 50 Mbps and can be over 100 Mbps in private 4G deployments. The difference in the actual speed of 4G and 5G is not significant enough for the adequate performance of much-touted applications such as remote surgery. Besides, current private enterprise applications may have limited demand for very high bandwidth.

The biggest advantage 5G has over 4G is latency, making private 5G well-suited for ultra latency-sensitive industrial automation applications.  The latency advantage of 5G comes from two fronts. The first is the revolutionized mobile core (5G core) that supports the distributed user plane functions (UPF) deployed close to the mobile devices where data is generated and consumed, which is also known as mobile edge computing (MEC) implementation. The second is the reduced packet size and transmission scheme over the airlink between the mobile device and the cellular node that helps achieve the 1ms radio access latency.  As for the first part, the MEC implementation of moving the core function close to the mobile devices will help the mobile network to provide at or less than 10 ms latency, this latency improvement at the core network has already been made available in private 4G implementation with the Control and User Plane Separation technology (CUPS).  Hence, the 5G latency improvement in the private mobile environment is mainly at the radio access side from 10 ms to possible 1 ms in case of sub 10 ms ultra-low latency is required.

Another stark difference between 4G and 5G is that they operate in markedly different frequency ranges. As a result, they can address different sets of use cases. 4G uses frequencies below 6 GHz, while 5G networks can also operate in higher frequencies, 30 GHz or more. High frequency 5G networks are potentially incomparable for their high data rates at ultra-high broadband speeds. They are also directionally precise, using smaller antennas with shorter wavelengths. 

Private 5G, with its high data transfers and much lower latency, encourages the growth of new use cases, such as remote assistance by experts in industrial plants. It saves the enormous cost of either transporting expensive equipment like aircraft for maintenance or transporting technicians for troubleshooting. 

Additionally, the high bandwidth of 5G automates inspection and quality control in industrial plants using computer vision technology. Moreover, it can process large volumes of real-time data, with very low latencies, generated with massive machine-type communications for monitoring, troubleshooting, and synchronizing industrial operations.    

5G is in its early stages of evolution. By contrast, 4G has matured since its inception in 2011 and can meet most of the current use cases in the enterprise. However, the choice is not either one or the other. 4G will coexist with 5G for a long time.  Even if there are use cases requiring ultra low latency and/or extra high bandwidth from the mobile network, 5G NR (5G next generation radio) in conjunction with a private 4G core with CUPS can provide benefits from both generations of the mobile technology: 1) the ultra low latency and/or high bandwidth that comes from 5G NR and 2) matured, reliable and widely available low cost 4G core.  Enterprises should deploy a private mobile network that supports both 4G and 5G technologies, provides a seamless evolution path as their business needs grow, and integrates with their existing IT systems. 

Conclusion – Co-existence of Wi-Fi and Private Mobile Networks is Inescapable 

The coexistence of Wi-Fi networks with private mobile networks is inevitable as network demands grow with proliferating applications and devices. The optimal use of unlicensed, shared, and licensed spectrum provides the desired coverage and capacity to meet the evolving connectivity needs of digital enterprises.

Wi-Fi can concentrate on the needs of smartphone users and non-mission-critical applications for day-to-day business operations. Wi-Fi 6 networks also provide high bandwidth for applications like 4K video, while more latency-sensitive applications can be processed by private 4G/5G. 

Additionally, private mobile networks, especially 5G, serve mission-critical applications like robotics more effectively with low latencies, high throughput, and ultra-reliable communications. Private 5G also helps to scale mission-critical applications with the mass deployment of connected devices. 

As enterprises cope with divergent needs to keep costs and complexity low, they must segment use cases and use the network technologies that work best for them. Start laying the groundwork for private mobile networks with 4G and evolve to 5G as needed. 

ALEF’s breakthrough Private Mobile Network as a Service lends enterprises the ability to create, customize, future-proof, and control their own private mobile networks with a wide choice of API plug-ins available on its edge platform. It frees enterprise customers from the barriers of cost and complexity of integrating private mobile networks with existing IT systems and Wi-Fi infrastructure – accelerating the adoption of new business-critical digital applications for generating new sources of revenue and optimizing productivity.


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