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Wi-Fi and 5G: Synergistic Technologies for Emerging Applications

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I recently had the privilege of participating in RCR Wireless’ “Well, Technically …” podcast, where women technical leaders in the wireless industry discuss our industry’s most pressing issues. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview and would recommend listening to the series on a regular basis, as the content is often compelling and the guests always present a fresh perspective.

The topics raised during this interview were so reflective of what we are hearing in the industry that I wanted to summarize key thoughts from the discussion. These are important questions that face operators and enterprises in the era of 5G, advanced Wi-Fi, and new deployment models like emerging private networks.

What is the difference between 5G and Wi-Fi 6?  Where does Wi-Fi 6E fit in?

Because of the advances both 5G and Wi-Fi represent, there have been those in the industry that have positioned them as competitive, with one side or another sounding the death knells of the technologies. The truth is that we will continue to see 5G and Advanced Wi-Fi not just complement, but be symbiotic, with each other.

Generally speaking, 5G and its predecessor cellular technologies have supported use cases requiring longer ranges and wider coverage, as well as mobility and operator services using licensed spectrum, while Wi-Fi has been more suited to shorter range, easier-to-setup self-deployments in home and office environments using license-exempt, or unlicensed, spectrum.

Similar to the improvements of 4G/LTE, 5G delivers significant performance improvements in the form of enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) for existing operator core use cases using the macro public network. However, what truly sets 5G apart from earlier generations of cellular technologies is significant new functionality for enterprises and vertical applications.

Some key 5G features for enterprises and verticals include Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC),  support for Time Sensitive Networking (TSN), private networks, positioning support and 5G in license-exempt bands, known as NR Unlicensed and of course mobility.

Wi-Fi 6, based on the IEEE 802.11ax standard, is a continuation of the Wi-Fi we all know and use in our homes and businesses. Wi-Fi 6 marks a great step forward from its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5. It delivers 4x higher capacity, 75% lower latency, and nearly 3x faster performance the speed of Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 improvements go beyond these numbers, though. It fundamentally changes how Wi-Fi transmits and manages traffic and this improves the overall quality, reliability and security of the technology.

Previous Wi-Fi generations were contention-based; first-come, first-served. This often resulted in higher latencies and inefficiencies with older and slower devices holding up newer and faster devices. With Wi-Fi 6, the traffic is managed by the network for much greater coordination, efficiencies and lower latencies.  It’s like a 4-way intersection with traffic lights and sensors vs. just stop signs.

Anyone can operate a Wi-Fi network—and most of us have one in our homes and offices, connected to broadband service. Wi-Fi 6 devices require a Wi-Fi 6‒compliant access point to get the full speed, latency, and capacity improvements, but is also backward compatible with existing Wi-Fi access points. In fact, nearly 9 in 10 American households with broadband Internet use Wi-Fi to get online (source: NCTA, 2018).

We are really excited about Wi-Fi 6E. It’s an enhanced version of Wi-Fi 6 that supports the new 6 GHz spectrum band, plus the existing 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz license-exempt bands, for significantly more gigabit Wi-Fi performance. In fact, this large 1.2 GHz swath of spectrum at 6 GHz (5.925-7.125 GHz) more than triples the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi. Over the last 20 years, Wi-Fi use has skyrocketed and it has proliferated into smart connected devices all around us. But no new spectrum had been made available for it over that time – until last year when the FCC allocated this spectrum.

How will 5G and Wi-Fi work together to create new connected experiences?

We often forget that Wi-Fi continues to underpin cellular data use. This year, 63% of mobile traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi (Source: Wi-Fi Alliance, 2021).  Wi-Fi will continue the tradition of low-cost device connectivity and density. It will continue to be a technology for the home and business environment.  Wi-Fi provides great support for different types of devices, like PCs, tablets, smartphones, streaming devices, TV sets, and printers.

Thanks to its longer range and services managed by mobile operators and the operator ecosystem, 5G will be used for mobile connections, for a variety of connected devices. The biggest benefits for 5G though, may be realized in enterprise use cases that need managed reliability and low-latency, such as manufacturing operations, as well as healthcare, education and smart city deployments.

As Wi-Fi and cellular wireless technologies continue to evolve in parallel, the core networks that are the backbone for all Internet connectivity are transforming as well. This is accelerating a shift to cloud native networks, bringing the same server economics that transformed the data center into the world of networking. Cloudification lays the foundation for carriers to support the growing volumes of data and billions of connected nodes that enable new use cases. Far from being competitors in a zero-sum game, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are technologies that will work together to enable next-generation experiences. Today’s agile networks, enabled by Intel technologies, are evolving to optimize traffic for seamless experiences across all network types.

How will Wi-Fi 6 and 5G be used in the enterprises

Private Wireless Networks (PWNs) have recently gained traction as enterprises have deepened their commitment to deploying and controlling the on-prem network infrastructure – and 5G now offers significant reliability and low-latency capabilities to go along with significant broadband improvements over 4G. Signaling this traction in the U.S. is the purchase of CBRS priority access licenses (PALs) by enterprises and wireless operators that wish to serve enterprises.

We also see 5G private network momentum growing with industry verticals such as manufacturers, retailers, and venues that look to integrate 5G into their operational technologies (OT) and business-critical use cases. These enterprises are interested in solving pain points of latency, range, security, mobility, geo fencing their data and ultra-high reliability by utilizing spectrum for their private use.

PWNs are nothing new: Wi-Fi enterprise networks have been the traditional and successful example of PWNs. Moving forward, Wi-Fi will continue to play a significant role for many enterprise use cases. Enterprises can continue to upgrade Wi-Fi at their own pace. Backward compatibility in Wi-Fi ensures a smooth transition to Wi-Fi 6/6E today, and Wi-Fi 7 a few years from now. This means that network upgrades can be gradual, following an enterprise’s refresh cycle or its growing capacity, coverage or performance requirements.

Enterprises may want to complement their networks with 4G or 5G in licensed, unlicensed bands, or in shared bands such as CBRS in the US. The enterprises can leverage the different types of connectivity to solve different use cases/pain points maximizing the rate of return. Enterprises, now with 3GPP Release 16, have the option to route Wi-Fi traffic into the cellular core through the trusted WLAN Gateway Function (TNGF) and the Non-3GPP Interworking Function (N3IWF), which enables the enterprise to move data across networks and gather/analyze data from multiple networks in one location.  Software-defined networking (SDN) will further aid in the total cost of ownership with multi-access and network evolution to Wi-Fi 7, by increasing flexibility in the use of network resources – for instance, with configurable air interfaces.

What is Intel doing to help develop 5G and Wi-Fi 6?

Intel is at the center of 5G and Wi-Fi 6 advancements. We contribute to both standards, design and simulate networks, demonstrate Proof-of-Concepts (PoCs), and conduct trials with operators, ecosystem partners, and cloud providers. We also deliver reference architectures and products. Of course, we provide core compute resources for edge computing (including commercial and open source edge software reference building blocks) and for a range of wireless devices.

For both 5G and Wi-Fi, Intel offers a range of silicon, software and tools to enable new capabilities for communications networks that are critical to deliver on the wireless experience. Intel also participates in standards bodies to help develop both technologies. A good example is Release 16 of the 5G 3GPP standard, which delivers a number of the features that make 5G so attractive, including URLLC. Intel was instrumental in shepherding its development through the standards process.

In addition to the standards development process, Intel has also been very active in developing proof of concepts to demonstrate what is possible with the latest wireless access technologies.  A recent example is a PoC Intel recently did with Bosch. This project used Time Sensitive Networking over 5G to improve the accuracy of time critical data a factory receives from sensors and computer vision applications. We’ve done similar PoCs on the Wi-Fi front as well, including showcasing TSN over Wi-Fi with Cisco.

As you can see, this is a rich environment for innovation. In many ways, 5G and advanced Wi-Fi will serve as the connected fabric for many transformative technologies and use cases, including AI, edge computing, IoT, autonomous vehicles and more. Intel will continue to apply our heritage as a leader in cloud computing and a decade of experience in transforming communications networks to achieve the full potential of these networks– making these the fabric of the network in the same way that our technologies serve as the backbone of the data center.
About the Author
Asha Keddy has 25+ years of experience at Intel as a patent-holding engineer and technology futurist building enterprise systems and defining policies that transform working and living environments. Ms. Keddy continues to serve as a pivotal force at Intel in the creation of the multi-trillion dollar 5G market opportunity. In this role, she has executed incubation efforts, product development, industry forums, standards creation, ecosystem enablement, and policy governance. Building on her experience as Intel’s 5G exec sponsor, she currently serves as Corporate Vice President and General Manager for Intel’s Next Generation Systems & Standards business unit. Keddy leads global efforts to build the next generation of distributed intelligence and advanced connectivity including 6G, the latest class of Wi-Fi technology, and more, thus empowering the creation of transformative and sustainable opportunities beyond Intel’s current playbook. Keddy is a highly networked industry thought leader, and a global spokesperson providing insights to government agencies, the media, analysts, academia, and investors. She has served as a representative before Congress and international government agencies including testimonies to the senate on 5G. Keddy helped establish Intel as a leader within key wireless, industrial and edge standards bodies, and multiple industry fora, such as the 3GPP, IEEE, Wi-Fi Alliance, ETSI and Open-RAN. Keddy is a founder and advisor to Innovative Optical Wireless Network (IOWN GF) and has served or serves as long time director on the board of directors of Wi-Fi Alliance, 5G Americas, and CTIA. In April 2022, she joined Smith Micro Software (SMSI)’s as an independent Board Director. Keddy holds a Master of Science in Computer Science from Clemson University and a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering from the University of Mumbai. She is an alumna of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business as part of the Intel Executive Accelerator Program. She is an avid advocate for women and minorities in technology. Residing in Portland, Oregon, Asha is an avid enthusiast for sustainability and the great outdoors. She enjoys kayaking, hiking, and spending time in nature with her family.