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It's not Wi-Fi 6 vs. 5G -- it's Wi-Fi 6 and 5G

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have similarities and differences. Enterprises want to know how the two can work together. Vendors, for their part, will need an integration strategy.

As new wireless and cellular standards emerge in Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, enterprises don't want one or the other. They want both, according to IDC analysts. Now, enterprises and vendors alike are trying to figure out how the two technologies can work together.

Specifically, IDC said, enterprises are asking how they can co-manage, provision, track or oversee multiple access services in Wi-Fi and cellular. As a result, networking vendors that sell both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G services need to tell customers how they plan to integrate both technologies.

IDC analysts discussed the development and future of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G in a recent webinar, "5G vs. Wi-Fi 6: Wireless Friends or Foes?" Important enhancements in both standards should create new opportunities for networking vendors and new use cases for enterprise customers.

IDC analysts said they don't envision one of the technologies supplanting the other as both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will be popular enterprise connectivity options. Ultimately, when deciding between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, enterprises need to consider each technology's ideal and specific use case.

Benefits and use cases of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G

As the latest wireless standard, Wi-Fi 6 promises faster Wi-Fi speeds, simultaneous servicing of multiple clients and better power management capabilities for devices. The use cases for Wi-Fi 6, also known as 802.11ax, include service for high-density wireless locations, IoT support and indoor wireless coverage.

Similarly, the benefits of 5G, the next cellular standard, boast increased speed and bandwidth, low latency and the ability to support more devices. The use cases for 5G include fixed wireless access, mobile backhaul and support for autonomous vehicles.

As key use cases for Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are identified, tested and implemented, some overlap across these technologies may develop, IDC said. The use cases will ultimately dictate which technology is used in a given situation. But, in most cases, economics and bandwidth and latency requirements will determine which technology enterprises pick.

At the same time, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are expected to complement each other, IDC analyst Rohit Mehra said.

"The more we can have these two technologies interoperate and work closely with each other -- including the ability to seamlessly hand off users and traffic from one technology to the other -- that would be a job well done and will meet the needs of the enterprise in the coming years," he said.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G pros and cons
Weigh the pros and cons of 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

Wireless and cellular can coexist

Increasingly, enterprises will have deployment options for both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, according to IDC analyst Brandon Butler.

As part of Wi-Fi 6 deployments, for instance, many enterprises are considering campus-wide refreshes, including upgrading Ethernet switching platforms and integrating them with software-defined WAN. In addition, many vendors have introduced Wi-Fi 6 access points (APs) and controller equipment, with more products expected in 2020.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have boosted network edge innovation as two high-performance and low-latency wireless connectivity technologies.

Because Wi-Fi is already well integrated into the enterprise, upgrading to the new standard should be easy, Butler added. For example, enterprises already have ceiling space for Wi-Fi APs and Wi-Fi network management platforms.

Not to be outdone, cellular technology is gaining interest among enterprises, according to IDC analyst Patrick Filkins. He cited IDC research that found more enterprises plan to use cellular to implement edge IoT, but Wi-Fi is still the leading connectivity option.

Additionally, Filkins said he sees 5G as a strong backhaul option for enterprises. The LTE backhaul router gateway market will see nearly 20% sustained growth through 2022, IDC said. At some point, those LTE router gateways will be converted to 5G, Filkins noted.

Wi-Fi 6 and 5G on the network edge

A key networking development in recent years has fueled the emergence of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. As the network core has become established, the network edge has evolved to accommodate remote devices, cloud-based applications and IoT. As a result, networking innovation moved out to the network edge, whether for internal communications among employees or along the external layer among business partners and customers.

As they developed concurrently, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have boosted network edge innovation as two high-performance and low-latency wireless connectivity technologies.

Amid this innovation, however, network requirements continue to expand, Mehra said. The network needs to connect evermore elements -- including the cloud, telecom and service providers -- with high-capacity bandwidth requirements and super low latency. The proliferation of devices, too, is driving the need for a mobile and connected workforce.

In the next three years, Mehra said, expect Wi-Fi 6 and 5G to be widely available for enterprises. Globally, expect several service providers to launch proofs of concept or production with 5G and Wi-Fi 6.

This was last published in November 2019

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