One wireless technology to rule them all?

Wifi 6, 5G or CBRS: One wireless technology to rule them all?

02 September 2019 | John Morrison

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John Morrison

Blog Author | VP of EMEA, Extreme Networks

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Networks are the backbone of modern organisations.

They power connected IoT devices, bring people and technologies closer together, and help transform business operations. Add advanced analytics features, self-driving and self-healing capabilities, and their status as the ultimate line of defence against cyber-attacks, and it becomes abundantly clear that most businesses would grind to a complete halt without them.

But not all networks are the same, especially not wireless ones. While Wifi-powered wireless networks have become the de facto standard, other technologies like 5G or CBRS are growing in prominence and threaten to challenge the status quo. This raises the question what technology the wireless network of the future will be built on? Will it be Wifi 6 – the latest iteration of the Wifi standard – or one of its two emerging challengers, 5G and CBRS? To try and guess what might lie ahead, it is important to first understand what each of these different technologies brings to the table.

Looking at the status quo

By now, Wifi has widely established itself as the modern standard for wireless technologies. Its prevalence in organisations across the globe is the primary advantage it holds over its challengers. Abandoning Wifi now would be a costly affair for most businesses and require significant financial investment in new infrastructure. Even if organisations decided to go down this route, few connected devices actually support other wireless standards such as 5G or CBRS, adding another level of complexity to the task. Wifi 6 also offers much faster data transmission speeds and advanced connectivity capabilities, enabling it to communicate with multiple clients simultaneously – a feature that wasn’t available in previous iterations. This is significant as it allows all devices on a network to experience the same, even level of connectivity, putting considerably less strain on the bandwidth.

But while Wifi might have the advantage of being almost omnipresent, it lacks flexibility, mobility and reach. This is where 5G comes into play, offering higher data rates, reduced latency, expanded system capacity and enabling device connectivity on a much larger scale. What distinguishes 5G the most, however, is its virtualisation and network slicing capabilities. These enable organisations to create virtual networks within their physical infrastructure, allowing them to reconfigure or scale services as needed. Naturally, 5G is becoming the wireless technology of choice for carrier networks, applications at large events like music festivals, and managed service providers looking to expand their OTT offering.

Lastly, the Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) technology might not be as well-known as Wifi or 5G but has, in its essence, been around for many decades. The service, which uses the 3.5 GHz band, is offering organisations the best of both worlds. It is as simple to set up as a Wifi network, yet offers the quality of service and performance of cellular 4G. CBRS has many of the same use-cases as Wifi along with the same capabilities (voice, text and data communication), while it also offers organisations the option to set up their own LTE networks. As such, CBRS is the ideal choice for enterprises that want consistent and reliable LTE coverage even in physical spaces that traditional carrier networks struggle to reach.

Comparing apples and oranges

The competition between these wireless technologies is much like the rivalry between the new LAN technologies of the 90s. Just like in the wireless space today, different technologies were in fierce competition for their share of the wired connection market then. Token Ring, FDDI, and ATM all had more advanced features than Ethernet. However, having already secured a strong foothold in the market, none of these challengers were able to displace Ethernet. Users were familiar with Ethernet and unwilling to adopt new technologies to replace a functional and well-established one.

While history doesn’t necessarily have to repeat itself here, there is one strong similarity worth taking into account. Just like Ethernet, Wifi has established its stronghold across all different kinds of organisations, which makes it harder for them to now adopt a different wireless technology. That being said, while Wifi 6, 5G and CBRS might share the common trait of being wireless technologies, they are far from the same and have fundamentally different applications. Rather than compete with each other, they will continue to co-exist with features and capabilities that complement each other.