Solution Notes

Future-proofing Enterprise wireless selection

July 12, 2023

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Historically, only one wireless technology really made sense for corporate environments: WiFi. This was true for an IT manager’s office environments, warehouses, and factories. The fees charged by cellular carriers for access to their public networks were just too high, and other than point utilization of RFID, or special purpose use of LoRa for remote sensors, few other technologies made sense.

Historically, only one wireless technology really made sense for corporate environments:  WiFi.  This was true for an IT manager’s office environments, warehouses, and factories.  The fees charged by cellular carriers for access to their public networks were just too high, and other than point utilization of RFID, or special purpose use of LoRa for remote sensors, few other technologies made sense.

However, wireless technologies continue to evolve, sometimes blurring the distinctions and use cases.  In some cases, this has been driven by rivalry between different standards bodies.  More commonly, it is just the nature of technology improving, and everyone wanting to make their favorite technology more capable.  

What should a corporate IT manager choose in this age of blurring distinctions?

Blurring distinctions

A huge change has come with the allocation and development of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.  This is unlicensed, free spectrum, coordinated by Spectrum Access Systems (SAS).  It is the first spectrum really approved for private cellular networks.  Just in the last several years has it been possible for corporations to purchase cellular base stations, install them in their facilities, and use them without paying the high fees that the public carriers charge to access their cellular networks.

Another change is the rapid increase in data rates supported by cellular technologies (and WiFi technologies as well).  In 4G, the maximum channel bandwidth for cellular networks was 20 MHz.  With 5G, this has been increased to 100 MHz.  Along with the prevalence of carrier aggregation (combining multiple channels) as well as 4 stream MIMO (potentially quadrupling data rates), cellular systems commonly support data rates above 200 Mb/s.  This makes cellular more effective for applications requiring high data rates, or high overall system capacity.

It often seems WiFi and Cellular want to play in each other’s back yards.  WiFi 6 introduced Extended Range (ER), and several other features to support longer ranges and outdoor operation.  Although these features only improve the link budget by a few dB, and few WiFi devices have implemented them, it does indicate that WiFi and Cellular increasingly view each other as competing options. 

Cost is another area in which traditional distinctions are being blurred.  WiFi now has huge volumes, and huge volumes drive down costs.  IoT networking technologies, such as Zigbee and Z-Wave, originally developed as a cheaper alternative to WiFi, have little or no cost advantage for IoT networks.  This is particularly true if you consider that most homes and workplaces are already equipped with WiFi infrastructure, balancing any slight added cost of WiFi IoT devices against the need to purchase a different infrastructure to support IoT devices. 

A different infrastructure cost analysis can be made comparing cellular and WiFi.  Cellular supports significantly longer range communication than WiFi.  This results in WiFi requiring 4x to 9x as many APs to cover large areas.  Consider a large warehouse or factory that doesn’t already have adequate wireless coverage and may require a modest number of client devices (some scanners, trackers on forklifts, etc.).  Cellular hardware may actually be a more economical bundle than WiFi for such an environment. While stand-alone cellular radios are more expensive than stand-alone WiFi radios, many devices come with both integrated and in instances where the client device is a cell phone (or cell phone based) there is no cost penalty associated with the client. 

One thing that hasn’t changed is cellular’s mastery of mobility.  Cellular is better at both demodulating signals from fast moving transmitters, and in ensuring smooth, uninterrupted handoffs as rapidly moving devices move from one cell to another.  This can be important in warehouse and factory environments where trucks and forklifts, even conveyor belts, can be moving at high speeds.  And, beyond mobility within a single building or campus, cellular devices have the option of roaming to a public network, providing coverage to nearly every corner of the globe when the private network runs out.

Winners and losers

As the distinction between technologies blurs, we can walk through a number of wireless technologies and see where they stand.  From the shortest range system, to the longest, an IT manager might consider:

RFID/NFC:  Used for inventory control and payments, these extremely short range technologies have some unique properties that are likely to keep them popular going forward.  They can support tags that have no battery at all, capturing all the required power from the reader’s signal.  Their very short range inherently improves security.  However, some tagging/tracking applications might be taken over by WiFi as WiFi costs continue to fall, and its advantages of longer range and greater data transfer become appealing. 

Bluetooth:  Bluetooth will retain its use as a cable replacement for audio and computer peripheral connection.  It never has been a part of corporate networks, and it probably never will, but it will still be present in those environments.  

Zigbee and Z-Wave:  These technologies are present in a fair number of consumer IoT devices.  However, as they lose their cost advantage to WiFi, and WiFi brings lower client power consumption through improved circuitry and protocol improvements (e.g. WiFi 6 TWT), more and more IoT devices will switch to WiFi.  Many already have.  The advantages of existing infrastructure (WiFi is in most homes and offices), and greater range and data rate will be too hard for Zigbee and Z-Wave to overcome.

WiFi:  WiFi will continue to grow.  It is still the best technology for environments with large numbers of clients or environments that need to move large amounts of data.  WiFi supports unrivaled data rates, low client costs, and very high network capacities due to the GHz-plus of spectrum allocated for it.  There is little doubt that WiFi is, and will continue to be the best technology in the office.

Cellular:  4G and 5G are now serious contenders for use in corporate environments.  This trend will continue, as cellular takes some scenarios that would have been served by WiFi or LoRa.  Cellular is the best technology where large areas must be covered such as warehouses, factories, car lots, etc.  It also is the best technology for high mobility clients on forklifts, trucks, cars, and high speed conveyor systems. 

LoRa:  LoRa still remains the longest of the long range technologies, and can overcome very difficult propagation conditions.  It will still be a strong solution for meter reading, remote environmental sensing, etc.  However, with the advent of private cellular, LoRa will be less attractive for some of its current use cases.  Cellular’s ability to mix operation on private networks when close to home and public networks virtually anywhere, together with inherently quite long range and penetration capability, along with supporting high data rates, make it attractive for all but the most extreme coverage scenarios.

The path forward

It’s clear that even as the distinctions between wireless technologies have been blurred, no one technology is ideal for all the applications many corporations have.  The main drawbacks to deploying multiple technologies is the complexity of managing them all, and the difficulties getting devices to roam from one wireless system to another as the devices move between environments.  Networking as a Service (NaaS), in which a corporate customer gets a suite of technologies that will be integrated together and maintained by an expert third party, can be a good solution.  It combines the convenience of a public network with the low cost and control of a private network, while supporting the multiple technologies that optimize the wireless capability across a corporation’s full range of environments.

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