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How Enterprises Can Augment their Wireless Access with a Private Mobile Network

The coexistence of Wi-Fi with private mobile networks is inevitable as network demands grow with proliferating applications and devices.
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 enterprise wireless networks is Wi-Fi for its proven value of low cost, simplicity, and ease of use. Private mobile networks have widened the choice of wireless networks available to the enterprise, and they address use cases more demanding of reliable mobile connectivity, consistent throughput, coverage range, 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 office applications and Internet connectivity. More demanding applications in industrial environments require reliable and predictable wireless connectivity. Deploying Wi-Fi in such environments is not only very complex and expensive, it often doesn’t meet the industrial application requirements. Co-existing private cellular networks offering highly reliable and highly mobile network connectivity relieve the enterprise Wi-Fi networks to concentrate on business applications, such as back office applications, video conferencing, while improving the quality of service for other digital Industry 4.0 applications. 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.

Weaknesses of Dominant Wi-Fi Networks Surface   

Enterprise Wi-Fi deployment exploded with growing use of laptops, followed by smartphones and notepads. Its low cost with increased employee productivity, made it the wireless enterprise network technology of choice and enterprise departments were looking to use it for other wireless applications. But, it started to run into various  problems like range, interference, variable bandwidth speeds, connectivity issues, etc.

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, predictable mobile connectivity, i.e. handover between access points, reliable bandwidth, and range are still problems that enterprise departments face.

As a result, the Wi-Fi network needs more access points and doesn’t guarantee the results.

Moreover, Wi-Fi radio propagates mainly in Line of Site, but it can’t deal well with obstacles, like walls, industrial machinery, pipes, installations, etc. On the other hand, mobile radio propagation was designed with obstacles in mind. Mobile radio signal propagates around obstacles (using all three propagation modes LOS, diffraction and reflection (with scattering), hence it provides better coverage and needs less access points in complex industrial environments.

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 and mobility for mission-critical applications. For example, they can support remotely controlled mobile objects such as autonomous vehicles and robots with reliable real-time controls. Private mobile networks allow users to implement policies to achieve the desired quality of service for each device and application. 

Cellular networks allow wireless connectivity over a larger area using far fewer access points than Wi-Fi. For LTE effective signals can go twice the distance of that of Wi-Fi at the same power because the LTE wireless protocols have better spectral efficiency that provides improved link reliability to distant mobile devices with substantial lower demand on signal to noise ratio. The larger coverage span simplifies the private mobile network for airports, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, healthcare, and education that need reliable and ubiquitous connectivity to coordinate indoor and outdoor digital operations.

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 single digit milliseconds, but in reality the actual numbers vary and depend on the location and networks. It may take another generation to fully accomplish what 5G was designed for at the needed maturity and reliability level if it follows the mobile technology breakthrough to maturity history. 

The difference in the actual speed of 4G and 5G is not significant at all if the spectrum bandwidth available is the same. Besides, current private enterprise applications may have limited demand for very high bandwidth.

The biggest advantage 5G has over 4G is support for more real-time industrial use cases. The real time mobile network connectivity advantages 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 theoretical 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 outside the radio, 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 over 4G in the private mobile environment is mainly at the radio access side cutting down from 10 ms to possible 1 ms in case of sub 10 ms ultra-low latency is required.

Another difference between 4G and 5G is about the radios and that they operate in markedly different frequency ranges. 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 thanks to abundant spectrum bandwidth over 30 GHz. 

Private 5G, with its high data transfers and ultra lower latency, encourages the growth of new use cases, such as discrete automation with closed-loop control in industrial plants. Additionally, the high bandwidth of 5G automates inspection and quality control in industrial plants using computer vision technology.    

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. 4G will coexist with 5G for a long time.  Even all mobile network operators started their 5G strategy by following the 5G standard specs of 5G Non Stand-Alone (5G NSA) to deploy 5G NR (5G next generation radio) in conjunction with a 4G core.  Similarly deploying 5G NSA strategy that combines a 5G NR and 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 and provide good fixed wireless connectivity. Wi-Fi 6 networks also provide high bandwidth for applications like 4K video to people, while more machine type applications requiring reliability, QoS control and/or mobility can be processed by private 4G/5G.  Wi-Fi falls short in providing ubiquitous wireless coverage in large indoor and outdoor space from both cost and operational efficiency perspectives due to its radio access technology limitation compared to that of cellular.

Additionally, private mobile networks serve mission-critical applications like robotics more effectively with low latencies, high throughput, and ultra-reliable communications thanks to their connection oriented management systems allowing fine tuning of each mobile device’s mobile connection for security and QoS control. Private 4G/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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