Wi-Fi® and private cellular networks have different advantages and disadvantages, which makes a compelling case for their combined use. During the Connect (X) 2022 event session Wi-Fi and Private Cellular Network Coexistence, Kevin Robinson, Wi-Fi Alliance® SVP of Marketing, hosted a panel consisting of Dave Wright, Head of Global Wireless Policy for Aruba (a Hewitt Packard Enterprise company), Steve Wimsatt, Senior Director of Strategic Alliances and Business Development for Commscope, and Jason Huitt, Director of Networking and Telecommunications for Colorado State University. The panelists explored specific use cases for Wi-Fi and private cellular networks, including healthcare and education, where these internet technologies coexist to provide a seamless, low-latency experience for users. In particular, because the backend infrastructure for these use cases is based on Wi-Fi, the panelists determined that IT managers must adapt private cellular to this existing Wi-Fi infrastructure in order to achieve true convergence.
Use cases where private wireless and Wi-Fi coexist
Students work in a variety of environments across college campuses. To accommodate their needs, colleges must execute an internet connectivity plan that includes both Wi-Fi and private cellular networks.
Wi-Fi provides unique, exceptional in-building coverage, which is especially useful in areas where private cellular struggles to reach — for instance, basements, where graduate students often have their offices. In addition to excellent coverage, Wi-Fi 6E technology allows for greater capacity and faster speeds by expanding Wi-Fi to the 6 GHz band. The University of Michigan just installed 15,000 Wi-Fi 6E access points across their campus, providing 300 to 400 megabits per second to students and staff, which is impressive given the dense population of dorms and academic buildings and that students average five or six devices each.
Colorado State University administration has asked their IT department to improve the internet connections of students, guests, and staff. In order to accomplish this, IT must either leverage existing wireless networks to enable functionality such as Wi-Fi calling and guest access or perhaps explore cellular offload to deliver the necessary connectivity. This presents an opportunity for private cellular to coexist with Wi-Fi to handle the campus’ capacity demands. “I think [we are going to] require both sets of technologies,” said Jason Huitt. Specifically, private cellular would work well in outdoor areas of the campus and in the field during research expeditions.
Hospitals are a challenging radiofrequency environment because you have patients, guests, staff, and devices accessing the internet at the same time. Fortunately, Wi-Fi allows network architects to segment traffic by service set identifier (SSID) and designate guests and patients to the 5 GHz band, reserving the newly opened 6 GHz band for business-critical applications. This means that life-sustaining devices will not be subject to bandwidth constraints caused by non-critical internet usage.
However, while Wi-Fi offers an exceptional internet foundation for hospitals, private cellular is also potentially beneficial. “Private wireless, I would argue, would be better for things like nurse call [communications],” said Steve Wimsatt. In this case, you have low volume but need abundant coverage, seamless connectivity, and smooth handoffs during periods of high mobility, like when nurses are walking around a hospital floor. This solution would reserve Wi-Fi for use cases like sending X-rays around a hospital, which do not typically involve mobile usage but require high speeds.
Achieving true convergence
Even though private cellular is a new technology — and therefore convergence between it and Wi-Fi is still in a nascent state — IT managers are starting to understand how both network types can benefit business. Convergence does not just mean operating the two networks simultaneously, but rather having them interact and support each other. For example, if a person is connected to Wi-Fi inside the walls of their office building, they could connect to a private cellular network after stepping outside — but maintain the same level of network access.
The key to convergence is to build off the existing standard, which is Wi-Fi. Corporate IT departments have a lot of experience managing this type of network and it is difficult for them to switch suddenly to the core services of private cellular networks. By adapting private cellular to the Wi-Fi infrastructure, IT only has to deploy, power up, and manage a different wireless network instead of making changes to the backend infrastructure.
The signs of convergence are already apparent: Wi-Fi and private cellular technologies are borrowing from each other. For instance, orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA) has been present in private cellular for multiple releases and is now also available with Wi-Fi 6. Additionally, private cellular is starting to move into dense indoor environments, which have traditionally been dominated by Wi-Fi.
Cooperation over competition
For a variety of use cases, Wi-Fi provides a great foundation on which private cellular networks can build and contribute. But it is important to remember that Wi-Fi is inexpensive, ubiquitous, and accessible by virtually every device that can connect to the internet. There is a reason why FCC commissioners refer to Wi-Fi as “the sandbox where interesting things happen,” according to Dave Wright. “We have had 25 years of experiencing the kinds of creativity and flexibility that Wi-Fi allows people to do,” he said, and it is important not only to preserve this innovative space, but to build on it, as Wi-Fi 6E does. With the 6 GHz band, you create more capacity for business operations, certainly, but you also establish the potential for new technologies, such as the metaverse and 360 immersive gaming, that will define the next generation of devices. Ultimately, what users expect is pervasive connectivity, which is only attainable through the coexistence and convergence of Wi-Fi and private cellular networks. Therefore, it is important to view these technologies as friends, not enemies.
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