Enterprise operators are looking for new ways to leverage Industry 4.0 – the transformation of traditional industrial and manufacturing practices using smart technology – as we move toward a world of large-scale Machine to Machine (M2M) communications and Internet of Things (IoT) deployments driven by the two dominant wireless technologies, 5G and Wi-Fi 6. However, many operators aren’t sure which technology suits their needs.

Increased automation, self-monitoring, and improved communication between devices and the network play a key role in the success of Industry 4.0, along with millions of sensors capable of analysis and diagnoses of smart machines without human intervention. Enterprise operators are looking at devices to deliver this automation and they no longer want a costly wired connection.

Wi-Fi is already widely used, but in some environments, there may be a potential risk of contention or interference, and for large coverage areas it requires many access points. On the other hand, 5G can be deployed with a clean spectrum and radio units with higher power levels, so you need fewer cell sites.

We don’t consider the two technologies an “either/or” but rather as complementary. Think of it as having both 4G/5G and Wi-Fi on your mobile phone, but using them interchangeably depending on location, radio spectrum capabilities, and mobility. In the same way, we expect enterprises to examine both technologies and find the right niche for each one in their business applications.

What are Some Use Cases for These Technologies?

Some enterprises want a dedicated network of their own rather than using a mass service provider network. In Industry 4.0 the cost of deploying cabled devices is becoming expensive because of the many regulations and environmental conditions to meet, so operators are naturally turning to wireless for an easier, more cost-effective way of supporting their applications.

With so many M2M and IoT devices, there’s limitless potential to automate practically anything that is adaptable to a sensor. In manufacturing, autonomous guided vehicles in factories will be collecting parts from the warehouse and bringing them out onto the factory floor. Obviously, the vehicle needs to know it’s going in the right direction!

Hospitals may find a combination of the two useful. While they already provide Wi-Fi access to their patients and staff, they may wish to isolate their critical monitoring equipment and other devices on a private 5G network. This is a great example of how the two technologies complement one another and an apt use case to show how 5G may be both an indoor and outdoor solution.

Then you have chemical plants with thousands of sensors monitoring pipelines. Those operators want to use wireless technology to connect and monitor those devices in real-time. We’re also seeing the proliferation of entirely digital buildings where heating, lighting, and cameras all connect through wireless technology. And let’s not forget about robot sensors, valve controllers, pumps, emergency communication systems…you name it. Anything now connected by wire will soon be wireless.

5G and WiFi 6 in manufacturiA Closer Look at 5G

This fifth generation of wireless increases network speed, capacity, and scalability, and creates new experiences for users. It’s an ideal choice for outdoor networks, particularly in wide-ranging areas or in cases where you’re moving quickly such as in a car. In the next few years, we’ll see more 5G capabilities rolling out as it moves beyond serving wireless applications in residential or office spaces. We’re already seeing major deployments on mobile networks around the world.

According to Cisco’s Annual Internet Report, by 2023 there will be 13.1 billion global Internet devices/connections, 8.7 billion mobile devices, and 4.4 billion M2M connections, with M2M and IoT representing 34 percent of those overall connections. As demand for faster speeds and more device connections grows, expect 5G to easily satisfy those needs, with speeds multiple times faster than 4G. This means we’ll be able to connect more mission-critical IoT devices in areas like manufacturing, healthcare, and energy than ever before.

One consideration of 5G is spectrum licensing. You’re probably already familiar with the licensed and unlicensed spectrum. For example, service provider LTE/5G spectrums bought via spectrum auctions from the telecom regulators are classified as a licensed spectrum. But now we have a new category of the shared spectrum or what can also be called “lightly licensed”. This spectrum is licensed for a much smaller fee for enterprises to utilize in a specific location, such as a private 5G network.

When you deploy a shared spectrum, you get a license from the telecom regulator for a much smaller fee, and that license is dedicated for use in that specific location, so nobody else can use it and it can’t be interfered with. Now enterprise operators can purchase a similar license to a full-fledged mobile provider, but at a much lower cost.

Private 5G and Intent-Based Networking

Cisco Digital Network Architecture (DNA) is our intent-based networking technology that makes it easy to deploy enterprise networks. DNA takes a software-delivered approach to provide a consistent end-to-end experience for Quality of Service (QoS), policy, and assurance across the Wi-Fi access, campus wired fabric, and SD-WAN networks. It helps streamline operations and facilitate IT and business innovation, giving control over Quality of Experience (QoE) and greater visibility into your network.

Private 5G will become another access method in the enterprise, so it makes sense to integrate this into the enterprise networks, utilizing existing platforms. With the ability to deploy 5G Core technology in a compact form and 5G, Open RAN technology on Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) servers within the enterprise and networking the technologies utilizing the campus wired fabric technology.

A Closer Look at Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, is a general-purpose radio technology for local data mobility. Some advantages are that it’s easy to manage, maintain, and scale. It offers increased speed, lower latency, and more device density, and it also has an inexpensive footprint. Wi-Fi 6 speeds are 40 percent faster than Wi-Fi 5 (nearly 10 Gbps) and it’s ideal for indoor enterprise networks, but it doesn’t have the deep penetration or long-distance coverage needed for some applications.

Another advantage is that Wi-Fi 6 devices can still communicate with older Access Points (APs), so you can leverage your existing APs. You’ll see Wi-Fi 6 rolling out faster than 5G technology, and in fact, we already rolled out our own series of Wi-Fi 6 access points last year. The popularity of Wi-Fi 6 is growing fast and within the next few years most enterprises and users will make the transition.

But what about spectrum as we discussed with 5G? Wi-Fi spectrum is free to use, so it doesn’t require a license fee, which is good news from a cost perspective. However, as this is unlicensed, you can accommodate many more users, which means greater risks of contention and interference.How the two complement each other

How the Two Complement Each Other

Because 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are built from the same foundation, using Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) technology, in the future it won’t be an “either/or” choice. They form a complementary relationship in support of different objectives. Although their uses and environments may differ, both offer high data rates, support for applications requiring low latency, increased network capacity with seamless connectivity, and QoS capabilities.

Each can facilitate IoT at scale, and we expect this to play a critical role as we see an explosion of devices including sensors, valve controllers, and autonomous vehicles.

It may also come down to cost. As we’ve shown, 5G isn’t the only technology used for wireless applications, so it all depends on the specific use cases. If you’re using your network to simply connect printers and computers in an office environment, then you clearly don’t need 5G. It’s less expensive to deploy a Wi-Fi network and typical IT equipment is already Wi-Fi 6 capable. However, 5G is ideal for applications where you need mobility or are covering large areas. It’s important to apply the right technology for the right use case.

Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 are changing the way we connect as we move into Industry 4.0. I hope you’re left with a better understanding of not only the pros and cons of 5G and Wi-Fi 6, but also how they complement one another.


If you would like to read more on this topic, please visit the following:
Five things to know
More than a good connection
5G or Wi-Fi 6? 
Complementary not competing


Bhupinder Singh

Technical Solutions Architect

Global Service Provider - EMEAR