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Are You Prepared for the Coming 5G and Wi-Fi 6 Disruption?

Here are a few facts, myths and considerations for organizations to get the most out of these wireless game changers.

April 28, 2019 20 minute read

I wrote this article to provide some context around Cisco’s big announcement about new products and partnerships they're releasing that take advantage of the network possibilities offered by Wi-Fi 6.

For even more information, watch this three-minute video to learn how WWT, working with Cisco’s catalyst Wi-Fi 6 access points, can provide customers with high-efficiency wireless to meet their evolving high-density, low-latency, cloud- and IoT-driven network needs.

Introduction

There has been a lot of press coverage about 5G, the next-generation cellular data standard, which mobile providers are racing to roll out. The expectations are high for 5G to raise the bar again for what's possible on smartphones and tablets. Getting far less press is 5G’s lesser-known cousin, Wi-Fi 6, which also promises to fundamentally improve on previous generations of Wi-Fi and what organizations can do with it.

With the races underway for both, who can be first to market with 5G and Wi-Fi 6, and who stands to benefit most from the sales of equipment to deploy both? Plenty of hype, rumors and misunderstandings abound around how these two important technologies will work together, and when. In this article, I’ll provide some facts and direction on how WWT’s Mobility Team believes the mobility market will evolve so that organizations can gain a starting point on their strategy and direction.

A brief history of cellular data and Wi-Fi

Cellular data

Let’s start by reviewing where we’ve come from and how we got to 5G and Wi-Fi 6. When we look at the history of cellular data, we have to go back to the early 1990s and what today is known as “text messaging.” The 1G cellular systems were voice only, meaning there was no mobile data. What really set 2G systems apart was the advent of data — first with Short Message Service (SMS), featuring a whopping 2kbps or less data rate, followed by Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), which provided a blazing 19kbps data rate. These data systems didn’t provide much functionality, but they set off a firestorm of innovation with consumers hungering for more and more mobile internet.

In the late 1990s to the early 2000s, GSM Packet Radio Service (GPRS) arrived with 100kbps speeds (a 10-fold increase in data rate), followed by Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE) with a peak bit-rate of 1Mbps (another 10-fold increase). There isn’t total agreement on where these arrivals fall on an historical timeline, but most agree they should be referred to as part of 2G, sometimes as 2.5G and 2.75G, respectively.

Figure 1 – History of cellular data speeds and standards
Figure 1 – History of cellular data speeds and standards

2G systems offered more mobile data functionality, enabling email, SMS and the first practical internet browser experiences that operated their fixed counterparts: desktop computers with wired connections. The experience was nowhere near as fast, but it was mobile, and further drove the craving by consumers for more and better experiences. It's important to understand that 2G systems were largely islands — each system had its own technology that wasn’t necessarily compatible with the other technologies in the market. This made the idea of data roaming very challenging.

With 3G systems, the cellular industry began to realize that it needed to set more compatible data standards to encourage roaming and innovation. The Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS) and its cousin Wideband CDMA (W-CDMA) were designed with more compatibility in mind and provided up to 2Mbps data rates. These 3G systems also required a higher density of base stations and cell towers to provide higher data rates to consumers.

Faster and faster

The late 2000s saw the rollout of 4G (commonly known as Long Term Evolution (LTE)), which provided another 10-fold increase in data rates, this time up to 100-200Mbps. Another broadband option that will be forever remembered as a “One-Hit Wonder” was WiMAX. But the promise of a wireless competitive option to Cable and DSL was never widely adopted.

For the last 10 years, we’ve seen the rollout, scaling up and benefits of 4G/LTE. Mobile internet has become ubiquitous, delivering great mobile experiences, and new ranges of applications for the technology have emerged, including mobile audio and video streaming, two-way mobile video calls and many others. In the background, mobile providers have been scrambling to acquire enough radio spectrum to enable the ever-growing hunger of mobile internet consumers; and they've struggled to build enough capacity in the mobile networks to keep up with demand. 

5G systems will usher in another 10-fold increase in data speeds, up to three to 10Gb/s. For comparison, that’s faster than the most commonly deployed wired connections today. This will no doubt drive another wave of bandwidth-hungry mobile app innovation, as well as drive new expectations from consumers.

Wi-Fi

Next, let’s look at how Wi-Fi has evolved and draw some parallels to the above history of cellular data. Wi-Fi came on the scene a bit later than the first cellular data systems, with the first-generation Wi-Fi systems being introduced right around the late 1990s.

I should first introduce some nomenclature. Recently, the body that govern Wi-Fi standards has introduced a much simpler numbering scheme (borrowing from their cellular data brethren) to aid consumers and others in understanding the technology transitions. So, for this article, I will use both the technical standard as well as the new numbering system.

The first-generation Wi-Fi system, known as standard 802.11 legacy — which I'll refer to as Wi-Fi 1 — provided an earth-shattering innovation. For the first time, computers no longer needed to be tethered to an Ethernet cable to communicate with the network. Out of the gate, Wi-Fi 1 provided a maximum of 2Mbps, which, compared to its cellular data counterpart, was pretty impressive. Because Wi-Fi was designed to operate in a localized area where users in organizations worked, it was not encumbered by some of the fundamental wide-area macro cellular data problems their counterparts had to solve. The legacy 802.11 would quickly be replaced by 802.11b (still considered Wi-Fi 1).

The second and third generations of Wi-Fi came along relatively quickly with 802.11a (a new 5GHz band functionality) and 802.11g, which we'll call Wi-Fi 2 and Wi-Fi 3, respectively. Both provided up to 54Mbps, a five-fold increase over the previous generation and still a magnitude faster than their cellular data counterparts at the time. Along with the higher data rates came more innovations, including better security and new ways to mitigate interference — something the cellular data industry didn't have to contend with.

History of Wi-Fi data speeds and standards
Figure 2 – History of Wi-Fi data speeds and standards

A big jump

In the mid-to-late 2000s, the Wi-Fi standards body set to work and rolled out 802.11n, or Wi-Fi 4. This transition in Wi-Fi provided several benefits, including raising the data rates to 450-600Mbps, introducing key innovations in mitigating interferers and getting a better-quality experience with Wi-Fi. Generation 4 of Wi-Fi provided a real enterprise-grade platform and is generally responsible for accelerating broad Wi-Fi adoption. Workers came to expect an experience on Wi-Fi that was approaching the level of experience they got with a wired Ethernet connection to their desktop. 

Much like their cellular data counterparts, consumer demand (in this case, mostly workers at organizations) grew exponentially. Everyone wanted a better mobile experiences, the ability to untether at work, to work wherever they wanted, use whatever apps they wanted, and get the same experience as being at their desks. This fueled the need for more radio spectrum for Wi-Fi, faster speeds and a better experience.

Enter Wi-Fi 5, or the “5G” of Wi-Fi. During the last five years, we've seen the 802.11ac standard (i.e., Wi-Fi 5) take off in organizations, providing up to 1Gpbs in the first “wave” and multi-Gbps in the second “wave” — essentially achieving wired Ethernet speeds over Wi-Fi. Many organizations took advantage of Wi-Fi 5, driving “open” office workforce options with no wired connections. People could work where, when and how they wanted. 

We also saw a wave of innovations in the computer space; demand for desktops largely diminished, while demand for laptops skyrocketed. We saw similar innovations in laptops, with many taking on the form of a multi-purpose laptop/tablet portable computer. Workers were introduced to applications like mobile collaboration with voice and video, video calling and other bandwidth-hungry apps — not just as being possible but expected, and at high quality. Wi-Fi became the primary network for many organizations, with wired connections relegated to fixed devices like printers, telepresence units, video surveillance cameras and other assets that didn't need to be mobile. 

Now 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) is about to roll out with another two to tenfold increase in data speeds, along with further benefits to organizations who have come to rely on Wi-Fi for workforce productivity, customer/guest Wi-Fi experiences and other applications. Like 5G in the cellular world, Wi-Fi 6 is about much more than just raw data speeds.

How are Wi-Fi 6 and 5G different?

Aside from faster and faster speeds, there is something uniquely different about both 5G and Wi-Fi 6. Both have been built with the benefit of hindsight — a history of what worked well, what didn’t and how to brace for the next wave of demand from users. Despite their parallel worlds and user bases, 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have much in common and have experienced similar challenges as they've pushed the envelope of the possible. 

At this point, it’s helpful to understand a little bit more about how those faster speeds are possible. To a large degree, wireless technologies are at the mercy of physics; you can only send so many bits of information through the air and receive them accurately. While engineers can play tricks, employ techniques and bend the rules in some cases, you are always subject to the laws of physics. 

That being said, wireless standards innovators have used several “levers” to increase speeds. One such lever is encoding speed — the amount of information you can send in a single “chirp” of information over the air. We’ve seen encoding speeds grow from four pieces of information to 1024 with Wi-Fi 6. 

Another lever is parallel transmission, commonly referred to as multi-user or spatial streams, which use multiple transmitters and receivers to transmit information in parallel. 

Another lever is a technique called beamforming — making a receiver more accurate by better zeroing in on a transmitter. Think of this as getting really good at hearing a single voice in a crowded room.

Figure 3 – Some of the “levers” of Wi-Fi speeds
Figure 3 – Some of the “levers” of Wi-Fi speeds

Pushing physical boundaries

The “levers” at the disposal of wireless innovators can be summarized as follows: adding more radio spectrum, using faster encoders, allowing more simultaneous transmission, and finding ways to zero in on a single “talker.” Modern wireless innovations have maximized all of these for both 5G and Wi-Fi 6, truly pushing the envelope on the possible. 

But there are also some critical trade-offs to understand. As we push the laws of physics in wireless, physics pushes back. For example, the distance in which I can achieve modern 5G and Wi-Fi 6 standards is smaller. I have to be much closer to the base station (for cellular data) or to the access point (for Wi-Fi). If I push too hard, I can also severely reduce battery life — not good for mobile devices like smartphones or tablets. I could also create an unreliable experience; for example, I could enable the fastest speeds only a fraction of the time, with the "normal" experience achieving slower speeds (as a side note, this was the early experience of many 4G/LTE users).

Example of some of the “levers” applied to Wi-Fi speeds
Figure 4 – Example of some of the “levers” applied to Wi-Fi speeds

Because of the variables and assumptions in design, it becomes critically important to provide “guard rails” — not just around what is possible, but around how to maximize the probability that organizations can maximize the benefits of these new technologies.

In past generations of both Wi-Fi and cellular data technologies, it has been largely a matter of having the right device and service in place. With the current and upcoming generations, it is far more of a “your mileage may vary” scenario, with the success you can achieve tied to how well you followed various nuances of design and implementation! For example, an organization may make the mistake of simply swapping out their 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) access points with newer 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) access points in the identical locations. While they may get some benefits, they are unlikely to get the full benefits without revisiting the fundamental Wi-Fi design.

How will Wi-Fi 6 and 5G change mobility?

As I described above, the foundational speeds of both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are about to increase yet again by an order of magnitude. How will this change how we use mobility? 

First, we will undoubtedly see the continued advancement of mobile applications and the data they are able to take advantage of. Many applications have taken advantage of the cloud by being able to offload computationally intensive or data intensive tasks to somewhere off the mobile device (i.e., the cloud). For example, most consumers probably don't realize that voice recognition apps like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa work by capturing a snapshot of voice, sending that data to the cloud for processing, and returning an action. Why? Primarily because the real-time processing and data capture necessary is prohibitive on mobile devices — they simply lack the processing power and data bandwidth to do it themselves. The upcoming 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will open new possibilities for applications to crunch data closer to the source — think of it as putting the speed closer to where it is needed — the mobile handset

Another fundamental change is the idea of reliable wireless. Applications that were not reliable on wireless before, like real-time control for robotics and truly autonomous vehicles, now become a lot more feasible due to the ability of the wireless technologies to sustain the ultra-high data rates and reliability needed for such applications. The sheer data rates of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, promising multi-gigabit-per-second experiences, will set a new standard expectation for users, many of whom will never know that to do so previously would have required a physical wired Ethernet connection. 

The other major changes with 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have to do with the experiences learned by the mobile operators and IT, respectively. Many hard lessons were learned. While it's relatively easy to provide the promised data rates to a single user within proximity of a cell or access point, it’s much harder to do so when you have an entire user population putting crushing expectations on your network, all expecting that same theoretically high speeds and user experiences. 

These two modern wireless technologies about to roll out employ a lot of techniques to try and solve the problem of delivering the highest speeds to more users simultaneously. Thanks to those efforts, the wireless experience is about to get a whole lot better.

Five myths about 5G

Because of press coverage and the race to be first in 5G, there's quite a bit of hype in the market. Let’s go through a few of the common 5G myths.

  1. 5G is ready today
    Reality: Not quite. We'll see pockets of 5G trials in 2019, but don’t expect broadly available services until 2020 and beyond.
  2. 5G will roll out quickly
    Reality: 5G will not be a simple upgrade to existing cell towers; it’s going to take the installation of many more micro-cells and base stations. It’s going to take a LONG time to upgrade cellular towers, infrastructure and add net-new base stations to allow for 5G services to truly be ubiquitous.
  3. 5G will replace 4G/LTE
    Reality: 5G is designed as an extension of 4G, and the two are designed to work together for the foreseeable future. Think of 5G as the HOV lane for those devices and applications who qualify and really need the extra speed, while many devices and applications will continue to do just fine in the regular lanes (i.e.,  4G/LTE) for years to come.
  4. 5G will extend battery life of devices
    Reality: While it's true that longer battery life will be a part of the 5G technology when it's fully deployed, we may experience lower battery life while we're in the initial “islands of 5G" stage.
  5. 5G will make Wi-Fi obsolete
    Reality: Nothing could be further from the truth. The two technologies complement each other, and the laws of physics dictate that the two will continue to be used together. Neither can address the user demands and expectations alone.

So, what should you do to get prepared for 5G?

First, you don't need to be worried. Your current plans and strategy are not likely to be heavily disrupted by 5G; 5G will simply add more options to your strategy over time. For example, today you may want to take advantage of 4G/LTE connections for a wireless WAN connection in a Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN) design. You can easily do so, and when 5G connections are available, it’s a very simple swap of the cellular modem from 4G to 5G — it does not disrupt your SD-WAN design.

Something else to know is that, despite the hype and anticipation by consumers, mobile providers are much more focused on the “fixed” use cases for 5G — meaning point-to-point connections as opposed to truly mobile. They want to prove the technology works in a known connection with fewer variables before tackling the tougher issues of roaming, high-speed handoffs from tower to tower, etc. This can be a benefit to early adopter organizations in that the mobile providers will be looking for “friendly” partners to work with while proving out the technology. You may be able to take advantage of cutting-edge technology while these trials are operating. However, be advised that being on the cutting edge necessarily comes the downside of potential instability, starts and stops, and possibly not being able to conduct tests where you would like to see the coverage.

Five things to consider for Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6 has been a long time in the making. The Wi-Fi standards bodies have had the benefit of Wi-Fi 4 and Wi-Fi 5 generations already providing very good service levels to organizations, so much so that many organizations questioned the value of moving from Wi-Fi 4 to Wi-Fi 5 as Wi-Fi 4 worked so well. 

I'd argue that for the first time, the Wi-Fi standards bodies had time to catch their breath and think about how to truly innovate the next generation standard, as well as think through some of the future problems to be solved. 

An example would be found in Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA). Something the cellular data experts had solved previously was how to get maximum efficiency using available radio spectrum when multiple devices are transmitting simultaneously. Wi-Fi employed some techniques, but with Wi-Fi 6 they were able to “borrow” the concept of OFDMA from the cellular data body of work (which is too involved to explain in this article) and build it into Wi-Fi 6. This will offer additional efficiencies for Wi-Fi in terms of data speeds and simultaneous users who can experience them. However, hark back to the discussion earlier on the “levers” that innovators have at their disposal. Wi-Fi 6 takes full advantage of all of them, meaning organizations need to consider how to redesign a Wi-Fi 6 network to take advantage of the technology. How do you do so?

Here are five very important Wi-Fi 6 design considerations:

  1. New radio frequency (RF) survey
    It's highly unlikely you can simply do a “rip and replace” of your five- or seven-year-old Wi-Fi design and access point placement. You will need to start with an RF survey to understand the “delta” between what you have and what you need. The good news is that predictive models have gotten much better, so you probably don’t need to do 100 percent physical surveys.
  2. More access points (APs)
    Because of the techniques employed to get higher data rates, your user clients are going to need to be closer to the AP to get higher speeds. This works out great though, because if you do the math considering each client is going to be using a whole lot more bandwidth, you’ll need fewer clients per AP. The math works out beautifully.
  3. Future-proof your wireless
    Since you have to think through the wireless design again, start with thinking about how your users will use the Wi-Fi network in the future. Chances are your current Wi-Fi network was not designed for mobile voice, video and collaboration apps. In the future, this is a basic requirement.
  4. Less is more… power that is
    In the past, wireless engineers have relied on the trusty tool of turning up the power of the APs. After all more power means higher signal strength, and signal strength means better experience. This is no longer the case; in fact, Wi-Fi engineers need to get used to the idea that their new goal is to shrink AP “cell” diameters, shrink the number of users per AP, and lower the power of APs to reduce interference with more numerous, adjacent APs.
  5. Analytics, analytics, analytics
    While not part of the Wi-Fi 6 standard, AP manufacturers are no longer solely differentiated by their implementation of the new Wi-Fi standard. True differentiation now comes in the form of how well the Wi-Fi system can take advantage of analytics — of the Wi-Fi signals, users, devices, apps, etc. — and how well they can help the IT staff visualize and troubleshoot Wi-Fi issues. The era of “set and forget” for Wi-Fi is over. Get used to true troubleshooting, aided by automated correlation of events and the crunching of analytics data from many sources by big data algorithms — all presented in a form that is easily consumable and actionable by IT.

Where do I start?

It’s a time of tremendous innovation in the wireless industry, and we're about to take dramatic leaps with cellular data's 5G and Wi-Fi 6. These two technologies will roll out during 2019 and 2020 and become the next-generation wireless platforms for the next five to seven years. If you have not modernized your Wi-Fi infrastructure recently, now is the time to take a look at your mobility strategy and determine how Wi-Fi 6 can benefit your organization, your workforce and your customers.

At WWT, we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with major technology manufacturers like Cisco. We're lucky to have early versions of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 products operating in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC) where we have been helping validate systems architectures and understanding best practices for deploying these technologies at scale. 

We recommend that organizations start with a briefing on 5G and/or next-generation wireless to arm themselves with the knowledge of how these technologies will impact IT strategy. WWT also offers more in-depth workshops to help pinpoint the benefits your organization can achieve and what to prioritize on the journey. 

Contact us to schedule a briefing and learn more.

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