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 of what is 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? There are plenty of hype, rumors and misunderstandings about 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 Wi-Fi and 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) with 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, we saw GSM Packet Radio Service (GPRS) with 100kbps (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 to put these in the history, but they are generally agreed to be referred to as part of 2G, sometimes as 2.5G and 2.75G, respectively.
There was more mobile data functionality with 2G. Now we had 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. An important characteristic of 2G systems to understand is they were largely islands – each system had its own technology which 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 in order to provide higher data rates to consumers.
Faster and faster
In the late 2000s, we saw the rollout of 4G, also commonly known as Long Term Evolution (LTE), which provided another 10-fold increase in data rates, up to 100-200Mbps. Another broadband option that will be forever remembered as a “One-Hit Wonder” was WiMAX. The promise of a wireless 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, with mobile internet becoming ubiquitous, delivering great mobile experiences, and new ranges of applications for the technology, 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 the mobile internet consumer and have been struggling to build enough capacity in the mobile networks to keep up with demand.We’ll see another 10-fold increase in data speeds with 5G: up to 3-10Gb/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.Next let’s look at how Wi-Fi has evolved and draw 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.
What do these names mean?
I have to stop here and introduce some nomenclature. Recently, the Wi-Fi standards bodies have 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 will 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 be able 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 was quickly replaced by 802.11b. The second and third generations of Wi-Fi came along relatively quickly with 802.11a (new 5GHz band functionality) and 802.11g; let’s call them Wi-Fi 2 and Wi-Fi 3, respectively, both providing 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 also came more innovations – including increasing security and how to mitigate interference, something the cellular data industry did not have to contend with.
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, as well as 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 what accelerated Wi-Fi adoption very broadly. Workers came to expect a better 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, the demands of consumers (in this case, mostly workers at organizations) grew exponentially, wanting better mobile experiences, being able to untether at work, 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 have seen the 802.11ac standard (a.k.a. Wi-Fi 5) take off in organizations, providing up to 1Gpbs in the first “wave” and multi-Gbps in the second “wave” – essentially 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 saw a wave of innovations in the computer – demand for desktops largely diminished, while demand for laptops skyrocketed – as did the innovations in laptops with many taking on the form of a multi-purpose laptop/tablet portable computer.Workers saw applications like mobile collaboration with voice and video, video calling, and other bandwidth-hungry apps as being not just possible but expected – and at high quality. Wi-Fi became the primary network for many organizations, with wired connections being used for fixed devices like printers, telepresence units, video surveillance cameras and other assets that did not have a need to be mobile.Now 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, is about to roll out with another two-to-10-fold increase in data speeds and further benefits to the organizations who have come to rely on Wi-Fi for their workforce productivity, customer/guest Wi-Fi experience, and other applications. Like 5G in the cellular world, Wi-Fi 6 is about much more than just raw data speeds, which we will explore in the next sections.
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 had the benefit of hindsight – what worked well, what didn’t and how to brace for the next wave of demands from users. Despite their parallel worlds and user bases, they have much in common and have experienced similar challenges as they pushed the envelope of the possible. At this point it’s necessary 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. You can play tricks, employ techniques and bend the rules, but you are still subject to the laws of physics. Wireless standards innovators have several “levers” they have used to increase speeds. One is encoding speed – the amount of information you can send in a single “chirp” of information over the air. We’ve seen that 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 – using multiple transmitters and receivers to transmit information in parallel. Still another is employing techniques like beam-forming – making a receiver more accurate to zero in on a transmitter – think of it as being super good at hearing one voice in a crowded room.
Pushing physical boundaries
The “levers” at the disposal of wireless innovators can be summarized as: add more radio spectrum, use faster encoders, allow more simultaneous transmission, and find ways to zero-in on a single “talker.” Modern wireless innovations have maximized all of these for 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 the modern standards like 5G and Wi-Fi 6 shrinks. I have to be much closer to the base station (in the case of cellular data) or the access point (in the case of Wi-Fi). If I push too hard, I can also severely reduce battery life – not good for a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet. I could also create an unreliable experience; for example I could enable the fastest speeds only a fraction of the time, with the normal being much less than that (as a side note, this was the early experience of many 4G/LTE users).
Because of the variables and assumptions in design, it becomes critically important to provide the “guard rails” – not just what is possible but how to maximize the probability that organizations can receive the benefits of the technology. 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 the 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 same identical locations. While they may get some benefits, they are unlikely to get the full benefits without re-looking at the fundamental Wi-Fi design. We will look closer at this in the next sections.
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, a la in the cloud. For example, most consumers probably do not 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 in order 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 that it is relatively easy to provide the promised data rates to a single user within proximity of a cell or access point, but 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 speed and user experience. These two modern wireless technologies about to roll out have employed a lot of technologies to try and solve the problems of delivering the highest speeds to more users simultaneously. The wireless experience is about to get a whole lot better.
Five myths about 5G
Because of the press coverage and race to be first in 5G, there is quite a bit of hype in the market. Let’s go through a few of these.
- 5G is ready today.
Reality: Not quite; we will see pockets of 5G trials in 2019, but don’t expect broadly available services until 2020 and beyond.
- 5G will roll out quickly.
Reality: 5G will not be a simple upgrade of existing cell towers, it’s going to take 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.
- 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 (e.g. 4G/LTE) for years.
- 5G will extend battery life of devices.
Reality: While it is true that when widely deployed, longer battery life is part of the 5G technology, initially while we see “islands” of 5G deployed, its likely battery life may be lower.
- 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 continue to be used together; neither one can address the user demands and expectations by themselves. More on this below in the next section.
So, what should you do to get prepared for 5G?
First, you do not 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, the 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 with cutting edge comes some downsides 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
Actually, 802.11ax, or WiFi 6, has been a long time in the making. The Wi-Fi standards bodies have had the benefit of the 802.11n and 802.11ac (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 because Wi-Fi 4 worked extremely well. I would 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” from the cellular data body of work the concept of OFDMA (which is too involved to explain in this article) and build it into Wi-Fi 6. This will gain 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, which for organizations means that you need to consider how to design 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:
- Do a New Radio Frequency (RF) Survey
It is 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 will need. The good news is that predictive models have gotten much better, so you probably don’t need to do 100 percent physical surveys.
- You Need 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.
- 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.
- Less is More…Power That Is
In the past, the trusty tool of the wireless engineer has been to turn up the power of the access points. After all more power means higher signal strength, and signal strength means better experience. This is no longer the case; in fact you need to get used to the idea as a Wi-Fi engineer that your new goals are 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.
- 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 crunching of analytics data from many sources by big data algorithms – all presented in a form that is easily consumable – and actionable – by IT.
It’s a time of tremendous wireless innovation in the industry, and we are about to take dramatic leaps with both 5G on cellular data and Wi-Fi 6 on Wi-Fi. 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 will benefit your organization, your workforce and your customers.
Where do I start?
At WWT, we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with major technology manufacturers like Cisco, and have 5G and Wi-Fi 6 early products in our Advanced Technology Center (ATC) where we help validate the systems architectures and understand best practices for deploying at scale. We recommend you start with a briefing on 5G and/or Next-Generation Wireless to arm yourself with the knowledge of how these technologies will impact your IT strategy. WWT also offers more in-depth workshops to help you pinpoint the benefits your organization can achieve, and what to prioritize on the journey to get there. Contact us to schedule a briefing or learn more.