5G-WiFi

5G or WiFi. Is That the Question?

The Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G have become inseparable concepts. This makes sense because IoT has been a major driver for 5G as a global connectivity solution to allow IoT devices to connect and communicate with each other and with a central database. But is 5G the best connectivity solution for this emerging capability? Other wireless connectivity approaches, such as low-power wide-area (LPWA) solutions, are presenting themselves as options as well. To put things in perspective, we must consider the question from several angles.

While interactive and real-time IoT applications such as self-driving or autonomous cars will rely heavily on 5G, a manufacturing floor or an in-building facilities management system for a smart building would most likely use an existing hard-wired in-building connectivity solution or Wi-Fi. And critical healthcare applications that require real-time analytics and health monitoring data like those used in operating rooms may require more robust and reliable connectivity altogether, with the data placed as close as possible to the edge of the customer’s environment. 

One consideration with 5G is the selection of the frequency spectrum band appropriate for the environment in which it will be used. Lower frequencies penetrate deeper and travel across longer ranges, while higher frequencies have shorter reach but higher thoughput. For instance, a 5G signal using a high frequency millimeter wave spectrum 6GHz – 100GHz cannot penetrate the ground, buildings or even leaves and rain. 

Another consideration is the lack of cellular 5G infrastructure specially in many remote or underdeveloped urban areas. Based on what we know from major service providers here in the U.S., the infrastructure is still being built, with only 10-12 major markets opening up in 2019. And many of the devices are still undergoing testing by the manufacturers, many of whom are taking development risks as some of the 5G standards are still not finalized.

The question may not be limited to just Wi-Fi or 5G. Other wireless technologies may be able to fulfill the requirements. Requirements for IoT connectivity will depend on the industry served and IoT devices’ bandwidth, range, density, reliability and cost as well as specific organizations’ IoT goals and KPIs.

All signs point to a more streamlined and integrated co-existence of Wi-Fi and 5G. For example, SpiderCloud, which was acquired by Corning in 2017, makes a small cell radio node that attaches to a Cisco Wi-Fi access point and supplements the existing Cisco Wi-Fi infrastructure. Another example is Erricson’s Dot in-building cellular system, installed very much like a WiFi system leveraging LAN structured cabling infrastructure.

In the meantime, IoT standards are evolving. Each of the available IoT connectivity solutions has both pros and cons, as listed below.

IoT Connectivity Solution

Pros

Cons

Unlicensed (i.e. 2.4GHz/5GHz WiFi)

 

Inexpensive and already installed in many organizations

Prone to electrical and environmental interference, low reliability, very short range (LAN -100 meters)

Low-power wide-area (LPWA)

Penetrates walls and barriers, is reliable, low cost, low power and covers a large range (of greater that 500 meters)

Not commercially available everywhere

 

Cellular (public and private 4G LTE/5G)

High bandwidth, high range, good reliability

Expensive, high-power consumption, availability of coverage service area

Extraterrestrial (satellite and microwave)

 

High range, reliability and availability

Cannot transmit underground, high cost, low bandwidth

 

Standards for IoT connectivity are in the early stages of development. With its ability to penetrate obstacles easier than 5G and its low power and long-range capabilities, LPWA connectivity certainly looks like a solid contender and potential alternative to Wi-Fi or cable plants. But will it be commercially available where needed? LPWA continues to evolve with many proprietary and nonproprietary flavors such as LoRa, Sigfox, NB-IoT, EC-GSM and LTE Machine-type. 

Though major carriers like AT&T and Verizon have begun 5G pilot projects in select markets across the United States, 5G is still a few years away from wide-spread commercial availability.

IoT connectivity solutions are not “one size fits all.” With so many options for connectivity and still more technologies and solutions emerging, companies must exercise caution, remain flexible and consider what fits their specific use cases as they are developing their IoT strategy. Companies also must consider interoperability with their supply chain and external business partners. With the advent of cloud computing offerings like device as a service (DaaS) and the rapid adoption of mobile-first philosophies, new delivery and business models are likely to emerge and prove viable.

ISG helps companies understand how to navigate these developments and find network solutions that fit their needs. Contact us to discuss how we can help you.