Ask the Expert: What's Next in Wireless Technology?
By Your Edge Blog Team | April 13, 2021

Ask the Expert: What’s Next in Wireless Technology? And How Will It Impact My Enterprise Mobility Strategy?

There’s a lot of consumer excitement around 5G and Wi-Fi 6, but should businesses be as enthusiastic? Will CBRS and other private LTE network setups be a better solution for some? Get answers to these questions and more.

For months, we’ve been inundated with TV commercials, digital ads and media headlines touting 5G as the “next big thing” in wireless technology. Industry trade show conversations have centered on the technology’s potential, carriers have been offering deals on consumer 5G devices, and companies of all sizes have been clamoring to know what this means for them – especially if they just migrated from 3G to 4G. Making this even more confusing, we’re being hit with a never-ending wave of techno-jargon like “mmWave,” “Sub-6”, and “Mass MIMO.” There’s even more chatter about “private networks” using 4G or 5G and leveraging a new frequency band called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) operable under both licensed and unlicensed models.  If things weren’t complex enough, on the wireless LAN side, there’s a new Wi-Fi standard, called “Wi-Fi 6.” It has barely penetrated the market and there’s already a follow-on called Wi-Fi 6E.

We are certainly living in interesting times!

Enterprise customers must be prepared to make some challenging, strategic technology decisions, as each new wireless technology promises speed, capacity and/or convenience benefits. However, not all of these technologies may benefit your organization – and those that do may not offer the immediate return on investment (ROI) you’re expecting. That’s why we asked Zebra engineering fellow Bruce Willins to provide clarity on the current wireless inflection and how it will impact your enterprise mobility strategy in the coming months. Our goal with this conversation and others we’ll have in the coming months with top mobility experts is to help customers make intelligent, informed decisions that best suit their respective needs.

Keep reading below to learn which of these new technologies warrant closer attention right now, and possibly a near-term investment, by both small businesses and large enterprises. 

Your Edge Blog Team: What is 5G, fundamentally speaking? 

Bruce: I’m often asked “what is 5G technology?” to which there is no answer since 5G is not any one single technology. It introduces an array of new technologies, such as mass-MIMO spatial diversity at the physical radio network layer and network slicing in the back-end infrastructure. So, even though one “G” beyond 4G doesn’t sound like much, 5G represents a major step in the evolution of cellular technology.

However, it is important to understand that 5G “performance” can vary based on frequency band.  5G spectrum is divided into three different bands. The low and mid bands are Sub-6 GHz. In contrast, the high band operates at millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies, which are >24GHz. The lower bands are well suited to extended coverage and range and can more readily propagate through and around physical structures. But they have limited bandwidth/data rates. In contrast, mmWave – some carriers refer to this as ultrawideband – supports very high data rates and enables very small antenna structures which are used to create antenna arrays. But it does not readily extend coverage through walls or other physical structures. So, there’s a bit of a tradeoff: some will enjoy more widespread wireless coverage while others may be able to send and receive more data in limited geographical areas.  

Once fully rolled out, 5G has the potential to deliver speeds equivalent to wired Internet (somewhere between 10 to 100 times faster than 4G LTE), reduce end-to-end latency, and enable new deployment models. Depending on its wireless infrastructure, solution design and application, an organization might find 5G is able to provide enough bandwidth to support 100 times the number of devices 4G LTE can today. 

But, it’s critical to understand, the transition from 4G to 5G is not going to be as cut and dry as the transition from 3G to 4G. It could take up to 15 years for us to fully realize the 5G benefits I just described.  

Your Edge Blog Team: Why is that? Isn’t 5G here already? We hear a lot of ads in the consumer market boasting about these speed and bandwidth gains today. Are those asterisked? 

Bruce: Though it’s true that many consumers have 5G coverage now, they probably aren’t seeing all the benefits of 5G yet. It’s going to take a long time for full 5G capabilities to become pervasive. Early 5G networks on low frequency bands will not have adequate bandwidth to provide very high data rates. Initial 5G “Non-Stand Alone” networks will be partially constrained by legacy 4G infrastructure. The transition from 4G to 5G isn’t going to be an instantaneous rip and replace situation.

Your Edge Blog Team: How do you know if your 5G service is sub6 or mmWave? 

Bruce: Don’t expect to see any noticeable physical differences in the exterior of the mobile device.  Though mmWave requires multiple antenna arrays distributed throughout the device, these are generally within the enclosure. Now, if you have an mmWave device and are operating on a mmWave link, you might feel the device getting warm, as current mmWave silicon solutions consume a considerable amount of battery power. Thus, the best way to tell is to simply look at the device specifications. On this note, do realize that 5G mmWav-enabled devices will operate in lower 5G bands and 4G. So, one shouldn’t assume that a 5G device can only operate with mmWave coverage. 

Your Edge Blog Team: Will businesses that invest in 5G devices today benefit immediately?

Bruce: There’s no easy answer to this question. When we sit down with our customers to talk about 5G, the first thing we ask is if they have a use case that demands 5G. The next thing we want to understand is if they will be operating in a geographic area that has 5G coverage, and if so, what type of 5G coverage is currently available.

For the near future, customers need to realize that devices will be in and out of 5G coverage.  A parcel delivery person in an urban environment may have 5G mmWave, but as he or she drives away from high population density areas, the signal will likely fall back to 5G Su6 and 4G. Thus, writing an application that relies on mmWave performance may not be prudent. The majority of our customers should consider applications that execute well when operating in the lowest-common-denominator of performance, which will remain 4G for several more years.  

Furthermore, low bandwidth data applications in relatively uncongested areas may operate fine under existing 4G. In fact, 4G performance may actually increase as devices shifting to 5G offload these networks. 

But if you’re looking at 5G because you’re planning to rollout more augmented reality (AR) applications, for example, then it may be worth spending the money now on a 5G-enabled, enterprise-grade handheld mobile computer or tablet. AR applications, which are used to provide “next best step” guidance to workers in warehouses, factories, retail stores and other high-tempo environments, require seamless connectivity and low latency between the host mobile computer, the heads-up display and other wearables, such as ring scanners. In this case, a lot of data is being captured, shared, processed and redistributed between the operational edge and back-end systems. There’s also a constant, real-time video feed that must be maintained. 5G’s ability to provide a high-speed, low latency experience within a semi-confined area could prove very beneficial. 

However, if you have those types of applications in play today, and you don’t plan to introduce applications that require 5G performance into your workflows anytime soon, then you’re going to be fully covered with 4G devices for the foreseeable future. By the time you’re ready to replace those 4G devices, 5G networks should be up and running at full mmWave speed, which means you’ll start to see the benefits of a 5G radio in the handheld mobile computer or tablet.  

Your Edge Blog Team: Are there other enterprise applications that would benefit from 5G?

Bruce: Anyone trying to serve a densely populated area where a lot of devices are going to be simultaneously trying to stream video and other data – such as on college campuses, in apartment buildings, and at football stadiums – will see more immediate benefits from 5G. Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and even some healthcare technology solutions will likely need the speeds and/or capacity offered by 5G to reach their full potential. 5G will also be critical to machine-to machine communications and many Industry 4.0 applications, such as robotic arms and autonomous vehicles.   

But from a mobility perspective, with the exception of niche applications, we’re going to see the enterprise adoption rate lag consumer adoption. This is primarily because the enterprise use cases are still evolving, and coverage is still not yet ubiquitous enough to justify the additional cost of 5G and the power or battery impact of mmWave. 

Your Edge Blog Team: What about Wi-Fi 6?  What is it?

Bruce: Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of Wi-Fi technology. The Wi-Fi Alliance has changed its naming nomenclature so you might know Wi-Fi 6 as 802.11ax. It’s beyond the scope of this discussion to go through all the Wi-Fi 6 features, but a few notable benefits include increased capacity, increased network density, provisions that enable more control of latency and bandwidth provisioning, and support for lower power IoT devices. 

Wi-Fi 6 devices will operate in legacy Wi-Fi infrastructure and, similarly, legacy Wi-Fi devices will operate in a Wi-Fi 6 infrastructure. Wi-Fi 6 devices are increasingly coming to market and will proliferate in 2021. And, if you are wondering if you can get to Wi-Fi 6 via a firmware upgrade, the answer is generally no. 

Your Edge Blog Team: What about Wi-Fi 6E?

Bruce: Wi-Fi 6E is essentially the turbo version of Wi-Fi 6. Past Wi-Fi networks operated in 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Wi-Fi 6E adds a third band: 6GHz. The 6GHz band offers more than twice (1200 MHz) the total available bandwidth – read as capacity – than the 2.4 and 5GHz bands together. Thus, it has the potential to add significant capacity to customer Wi-Fi networks. 

However, operating at higher frequencies does present a tradeoff. Higher frequency signals have more loss when penetrating physical barriers like walls. Expect range to diminish when using 6GHz vs. 2.4GHz, excluding other factors like spatial diversity. Thus, you may only achieve full added capacity of Wi-Fi 6E when closer in proximity to the access point. Depending on access point locations and density, organizations might want to consider changing their network designs to take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6E. 

A question often asked is whether Wi-Fi 6E is a firmware upgrade from Wi-Fi 6. The answer is generally no. The radio frequency (RF) hardware in the access point must be specifically designed to support 6GHz.  

Your Edge Blog Team: Does Wi-Fi 6 offer a strong value proposition for businesses in its current state? 

Bruce: Wi-Fi 6 is a different story than 5G. Enterprise customers have expressed a number of compelling use cases for Wi-Fi 6 and, as they upgrade older access point infrastructure, they are also upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 enabled devices. As the infrastructure transitions, customers buying long-service-life enterprise devices want to make sure they can take full advantage of Wi-Fi 6 capabilities.

A number of large retail enterprise customers have expressed the need to equip all workers with a mobile device, which they understand will stress their existing Wi-Fi networks. Hence the need for Wi-Fi 6. Customers are increasingly seeing the need for a converged, voice-data Wi-Fi solution, which is also driving the need for Wi-Fi 6.  More and more customers are also streaming video over their Wi-Fi networks, such as training videos. They’re also starting to increase the number of augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and cross reality (XR) devices as well as Wi-Fi IoT devices. These all need Wi-Fi 6. Finally, in contrast to a cellular solution, enterprise customers have complete control over where, when, and how to rollout a Wi-Fi 6 upgrade, which increases its value proposition automatically. 

Your Edge Blog Team: Is there a rule of thumb on which Wi-Fi 6 flavor is the better starting point?

Bruce: Again, it’s really going to depend on the use case. I strongly recommend that any organization considering an upgrade to either Wi-Fi 6 or Wi-Fi 6E sit down and have an honest conversation with a trusted technology partner about its current needs and anticipated growth plans, both from a workflow and technology utilization perspective. Right now, we’re working with several customers to evaluate the ROI potential for all of these emerging wireless technology platforms in the context of their current operating states and growth ambitions. In several cases, they’re coming to us with a plan to go all-in on Wi-Fi 6, but we realize over the course of a discovery session that they really need Wi-Fi 6E to achieve their goals. When that happens, we start to weigh all options: should they jump right into Wi-Fi 6E? Should it be an incremental upgrade over the next 3-5 years? Will they ever really need Wi-Fi 6E based on their industry and projected technology innovation? In some cases, customers will never need the turbo version, just like they don’t need premium features on their mobile computers today.  

Your Edge Blog Team: You weren’t kidding when you said the transition to these next-gen technologies weren’t going to be a simple switchover.

Bruce: Unfortunately, not. As technology becomes more prolific, connectivity requirements are no longer as simple as saying we need cellular, Wi-Fi or both. There’s a lot to think about to ensure the solutions work as they must to maximize worker productivity and overall operational output. And, of course, we must always keep thinking in the back of our mind about the future adequacy of technology upgrades. Remember the classical Bill Gates’ line: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”  Today, we have mobile devices with four orders of magnitude more memory than this, so perhaps 640K isn’t enough. 

Your Edge Blog Team:  There’s been a lot of buzz about private networks, is that something that customers should be considering?  

Bruce: Private networks have been around for quite some time. In simplistic terms, as the name implies, a private network is generally isolated with only gated access to any public network(s).  It leverages WAN protocols (e.g. 4G or 5G) and cellular devices. It also offers enterprise customers data isolation/protection and self-managed, dedicated resource availability, meaning it’s not shared with the general public.

The interest in private networks in the U.S. has grown tremendously with the introduction of CBRS, which is the buzz you’re referring to.  CBRS represents a swatch of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band and can operate in either licensed spectrum or “lightly” licensed spectrum. This means that an enterprise customer without a spectrum license can install a CBRS base station – or stations – and own and operate a CBRS network. One advantage of this scenario is coverage with minimal infrastructure. A single CBRS base station can cover as much area as 10 Wi-Fi access points. For example, a customer looking to cover a campus with a minimal amount of network infrastructure devices might choose to go CBRS. Since CBRS networks are based on cellular protocols and technologies, they inherit many of those technologies’ benefits, such as protocols that provide more deterministic latency for voice communications. Though the example just cited is for an outdoor application, we have seen interest from customers looking to provide indoor coverage in large open spaces.   

Your Edge Blog Team: It sounds like CBRS offers a lot of benefits to a lot of different types of organizations. 

Bruce: You’re absolutely right. Everyone from retailers and hospitality providers to healthcare organizations and transportation companies could probably benefit from CBRS in some way.  With that said, customers that already have a Wi-Fi network and are looking to extend coverage using CBRS must be able to manage two disparate networks.

Your Edge Blog Team: Is there a scenario in which an organization would benefit from cutting the cord, so to speak? Could someone use CBRS to completely replace traditional cellular service or Wi-Fi infrastructure?

Bruce: There are some situations in which CBRS and other private LTE network technologies will be used to completely replace traditional cellular and Wi-Fi solutions. However, I think we’ll see CBRS layered in more as a supplemental solution when someone needs to boost coverage or bandwidth capacity in a very targeted application. For example, a big box retailer isn’t going to necessarily rip and replace its entire Wi-Fi architecture with CBRS. But it might add CBRS to the mix to provide better coverage in its parking lots. An organization that needs to facilitate conversations about sensitive data may also opt to add CBRS on top of existing wireless infrastructure. A good example would be a hospital where doctors are conducting telehealth appointments and want to ensure patient conversations are kept private. 

Your Edge Blog Team: It doesn’t sound like there’s a single best roadmap that organizations should follow to transition to these next-generation wireless technologies, then. 

Bruce: There really isn’t. That’s why it’s so important to first define every application that needs wireless connectivity in some capacity. Then you can sit down with your technology partner to think about how much speed and bandwidth is needed to support those applications in a current state and the anticipated future state. You also have to figure out your tolerance level with regards to latency and reliability. How big of a deal will it be if a signal drops for a split second or doesn’t reach to the furthest edge of your operation? 

You’ll also need to think about how many devices – and how many different types of devices – you need to support. Will a single LTE network be sufficient or will it serve you best to utilize cellular, Wi-Fi and CBRS at once? Can you consolidate from Wi-Fi and CBRS down to just CBRS? Can you afford to wait for 5G to mature more in the enterprise space as long as you upgrade to Wi-Fi 6E right now? And can you afford to upgrade twice in a two-year period if you opt to start with Wi-Fi 6 and progress to Wi-Fi 6E later? 

This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of considerations, but it is a baseline of what organizations need to think about before spending any money on new wireless technology. It’s our job at Zebra, and it’s the job of our channel partners, to help organizations ask the right questions and then find the right answers specific to each customer’s operating environment. Though today’s wireless ecosystem is more complex than ever, it gives us more flexibility than we’ve ever had to build the right technology solutions for our customers based on their very specific needs. Plus, with the wide variety of flavors now available, businesses no longer have to settle for subpar wireless technology performance or struggle to scale certain applications. We’re going to be able to be very innovative from here on out. The sky’s no longer the limit. 


Editor’s Note:

Stay tuned into the Your Edge blog in the coming months for more in-depth analysis of the unique value propositions of 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and private wireless networks as well as emerging use cases in your industry. 

In the meantime, we recommend you check out this Next-Gen Wireless Solution Brief. It’s a great resource if you want more information on the fundamentals of each wireless platform with regard to consumer versus enterprise applications. Of course, as Bruce stressed, the best next step would be to set up a call with Zebra’s solution experts to find out if and how 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and CBRS-enabled mobile devices could benefit your operation today.   

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