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18 April 2023

WiFi 6E and 5G face off in venues while enterprises seek coexistence

While WiFi and cellular seem destined to coexist and eventually converge, there are some instances meanwhile where they will face off as direct alternatives, such as construction sites and also venues, where one or the other will serve primary connectivity.

In terms of timescales, the move from 5G Non-Standalone to Standalone, the evolution of private 5G and network slicing, and the adoption of WiFi 6E and shortly WiFi 7, mean that this area is one that could get messy.

Some vendors, such as Qualcomm at the silicon level and HPE at the system level, cover both bases, but Cisco is notable for leaning towards WiFi – having missed out on the cellular radio boom that came in with 4G, as Wireless Watch has discussed before.

Cisco has unveiled a stadium deal with media and cable broadband giant Comcast, which will be deploying about 900 WiFi 6E access points from Extreme Networks, at the home of the baseball’s San Francisco Giants – Oracle Park.

Stated applications include fast mobile entry, mobile concessions sales, emerging apps around AR and VR experiences, and biometrics-based entry. Such cable companies are already familiar with WiFi as the “last mile” of their consumer and enterprise broadband services, so stadiums look like a natural extension.

Yet these stadium deployments are only possible because of the improved performance and capacity of WiFi 6E. In the past WiFi had been deployed by such stadiums mostly for administrative functions ring fenced from spectators, who were confined to congested channels. It is only with WiFi 6 and especially 6E that WiFi has become a serious contender for ubiquitous stadium wide connectivity serving advanced applications such as Extended Reality (XR).

Private 5G is also a strong contender for stadium connectivity, but this is one sector where it is facing strong competition from WiFi. The situation is some other sectors, such as underground metro rail networks, many of which initially adopted WiFi but are now focusing on cellular to deliver widespread connectivity throughout the tunnels as well as in stations.

The London Underground and the New York subway are two large metro networks currently installing 5G after initially deploying WiFi, which proved underwhelming because access was largely confined to stations. In these scenarios WiFi has proved unable to deliver the required full coverage across large tunnel networks.

But Cisco recently mounted a stiff defense of WiFi, arguing that it would repel private 5G in many neutral situations where the latter has no distinct advantage. This is on the grounds that enterprises are more familiar with WiFi and that the latest versions address some of the earlier pain points over performance and indoor coverage, with mesh technologies improving availability and reliability.

Cisco might point to the sports stadia market as one where WiFi and 5G compete on an almost equal footing and where the former has held out quite well. Cisco struck a marquee contract in March 2022 with football club Real Madrid, a multiyear partnership involving deployment of the largest WiFi 6 stadium network in Europe to date. The club’s 85,000-seat multi-purpose stadium will have over 1,200 WiFi 6 access points (APs) serving fans at Real Madrid matches and other events.

Another triumph for WiFi was announced by HPE’s Aruba division late in 2022 despite its swing towards private 5G, with San Francisco’s Chase Center, home arena of current NBA (National Basketball Association) champions Golden State Warriors’ deploying 250 of its APs. These feature ultra tri-band filtering that dynamically adjusts the available channels, to reduce impact of signal interference.

Use of the term ultra triband is slightly confusing. Before WiFi 6E came along around 2021, WiFi operated in two channels, at 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. However, some vendors developed triband operation by opening two channels in the 5 GHz band as well as one at 2.4 GHz, providing greater insulation against signal interference in any one of them, usually as a result of congestion. But under 6E, Aruba offers its third channel in the higher 6 GHz band now available, and just one at 5 GHz, which is the justification for the term ultra triband, to distinguish it from the earlier pre-6E versions.

While Cisco has no current plans to renter the RAN market it exited around the dawn of 4G, it has moved to exploit the nascent private 5G market through partnerships. The company announced it was collaborating with NTT in February 2023 just in time for MWC 2023, to foster private 5G adoption in the automotive, logistics, healthcare, retail, and government sectors.

The idea is to offer edge connectivity through NTT’s managed private 5G system, combined with Intel hardware, with Cisco contributing often pre-existing WiFi, fixed LAN and cloud or dedicated WAN infrastructure. Cisco then is still tiptoeing around the edge of private 5G and will be considering acquisitions to cement its place in the field.

That would emulate HPE, which is also rooted in the enterprise market and for a time competed with Cisco over WAN connectivity. HPE at MWC 2023 announced its acquisition of Athonet, gaining a private cellular core capability that can be integrated with its Aruba network management system, the pitch being that customers can then support private cellular as easily as WiFi networks.

This does not mean HPE is giving up on WiFi, but is an admission that a growing number of applications will be served better with private 5G. This is even the case as WiFi performance and coverage improve with version 6E and then the next WiFi 7 that will become commercially available in 2024.

HPE’s take is that WiFi will maintain its absolute position in many enterprises for current applications around productivity and internet access, but that private 5G will gain ground by being preferred for many new applications, especially where more extensive outdoor coverage is required. It would also dovetail with MEC (Multiaccess Edge Compute) for low latency processes, for which WiFi would be unsuited.

It is telling that Phil Mottram, general manager of HPE’s Intelligent Edge business, recently cited USA retail chain Home Depot as an example of a company that had deployed private 5G after being content before with WiFi for all local wireless connectivity.

The company wanted to deploy a drive-by service familiar to purchasers of fast food, in this case to have retail goods delivered directly to their vehicles. Private 5G was preferred because of its superior outdoor coverage, and such choices motivated HPE’s acquisition of Athonet to provide smaller scale core technology than HPE had developed internally for the telco macro market.

While coverage and performance are selling points, private 5G could not be widely adopted without two related developments over spectrum that Mottram cited recently as decisive. One is that private shared spectrum is now becoming widely available for enterprise use outside control of telcos as a result of regulatory changes.

This emerged first in the USA with Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) and then spread to other countries. This led to the second development of equipment manufacturers developing private cellular offerings aligned with the rest of their enterprise networking portfolios, exploiting the harmonized spectrum.

Even Cisco concedes that private 5G will make some inroads into its traditional enterprise fiefdom, which is why it is collaborating with NTT.