Enigmatic and complex, exciting and even surprising—wireless networks are a lot of things. One thing they’re not is static. That’s one of the things you have to love about this business; just when you think you know what’s what, something different comes along that forces you to re-evaluate everything.
Once every few years, a new wireless technology emerges that threatens to shake things up a bit. You keep tabs on it to see if it makes it past the early adopters. If it continues to gain momentum you decide to give it serious consideration. You do a bit of homework to understand how it fits into the larger wireless ecosystem and, more importantly, what role it could have in your network roadmap.
This is where we are with Private LTE/5G, which has rapidly emerged as—some might say—a potential competitor to enterprise Wi-Fi. But to understand if Private LTE/5G is a contender or a pretender, we need to look under the hood. In this blog, we’ll get to know the technology a bit better, see what makes it tick and learn how it compares to the incumbent, enterprise Wi-Fi. Let’s get to it.
Private LTE/5G and Wi-Fi: the Basics
Private LTE/5G is a cellular-based network solution that provides network services independent of any carrier. It operates like a scaled-down public cellular network, using localized micro towers and small cell radios/antennas to support its users. The entire network—including the licensed, shared, or unlicensed spectrum in which it operates—is owned and managed by the organization that uses it. As such, Private LTE/5G can be configured to meet the specific needs of the organization and its users, all without interference from the often-congested public wireless spectrum. This flexibility, however, comes at a cost; like anything else, there are always tradeoffs. More on this in a minute.
While the first commercial Private LTE/5G network launched in 2013[i], it wasn’t until recently that it began to enter the wireless mainstream. The key enabler—the FCC’s introduction of the Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS), a shared-spectrum band in the 3.55GHz — 3.7GHz range. With its commercial introduction in 2020, CBRS enabled organizations to install and control Private LTE/5G networks without the burden of recurring carrier data charges to a service provider. Private LTE/5G suddenly became affordable enough to become a player in the industry.
Today, the global Private LTE market is estimated at about $5.0 billion (US) and is expected to more than double, reaching $10.3 billion, by 2028.[ii] That number will undoubtedly balloon even more in the coming years as Private 5G networks, driven by Industry 4.0 and Web 4.0 deployments, ramp up. Overall, the Private LTE/5G opportunity is quickly gaining traction in industries such as education, healthcare, manufacturing, oil and gas, energy and utility, retail and e-commerce, information technology (IT) and telecommunication.
Like Private LTE/5G, Wi-Fi transmits and receives RF signals that enable users to connect to the internet or the organization’s network. Specifically, Wi-Fi operates on two frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Both frequency bands are unlicensed and unmanaged, meaning anyone (if the network is open) or anyone with the network password (if it is secured) has access. As we’ll see in a minute, this is both positive and problematic, depending on the situation.
Unlike Private LTE/5G, Wi-Fi, both public and private, has been entrenched in the wireless connectivity eco-system since 1997. That’s the year that the IEEE released the initial 802.11 Wi-Fi standard upon which the evolution of Wi-Fi is built. As the technology’s capabilities have grown, its use has steadily increased as well. Today, Wi-Fi is the primary technology for home networks. In the enterprise sector, the global Wi-Fi market was estimated at $6.4 billion (US) in 2021 and is projected to more than triple, reaching $23.9 billion, by 2028.
Much of Wi-Fi’s growth is due to its nearly ubiquitous adoption into the devices we rely on at home and work. It is baked into cell phones, tablets, laptops, gaming consoles and controllers, smart watches, refrigerators (home appliances), baby monitors – you name it, chances are it can connect via Wi-Fi. But as mentioned earlier, for network managers this free and unfettered access is both a blessing and a curse.
How do they compare?
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics and backstory for both technologies, let’s look at how they stack up against one another, specifically as it pertains to an enterprise environment. The following comparison is based on a few of the key variables to consider when selecting the right technology for your environment.
Here we need to consider several cost variables. The main ones are hardware, spectrum, installation, and maintenance.
On the Wi-Fi side, costs are minimal which is one reason for its broad adoption. At the most basic level, the only equipment needed is a router and connection to the internet. There are no spectrum costs and, for small deployments, no infrastructure costs.
For Private LTE/5G, the costs are higher, but not nearly the barrier they once were. When the first Private LTE/5G networks were deployed the only available equipment was that used by telcos. It was expensive. Today, a growing Private LTE/5G OEM ecosystem has successfully right-sized components for Private LTE/5G networks. And, as mentioned, the introduction of CBRS has also made the cost of spectrum more affordable.
The size and scope of your deployment also has a significant effect on the cost of each technology. For example, in more extensive facilities and campus environments, Wi-Fi coverage constraints require more nodes (access points) than Private LTE/5G to cover the same area. In some cases, a single Private LTE/5G node can do the work of 20 or more Wi-Fi access points. More access points mean higher capital expenditures, higher installation costs and higher ongoing maintenance costs.
So, what’s the answer to the question, which technology has the better price point? It depends.
When we look at performance variables, coverage, capacity, and signal quality/reliability are key for just about every enterprise. Once you start talking about environments like manufacturing, logistics and smart city deployments, you can add latency to the list. So how do Wi-Fi and Private LTE/5G compare?
As noted earlier, Wi-Fi’s unlicensed, unmanaged spectrum is both a blessing and a curse. It supports a much wider diversity of devices than Private LTE/5G (which requires devices to have a network-recognizable SIM card). This makes Wi-Fi a popular solution for handling the public-facing traffic for large public venues like stadiums, airports and resorts. But those same performance characteristics also subject Wi-Fi to more RF clutter and potential interference.
So, while an airport may choose Wi-Fi to support its public traffic, it’s not a good option for its mission critical management and operations, whereas Private LTE/5G is. It provides a more controlled RF environment with better signal-to-noise ratios. This is partially due to the use of 3GPP interference management that enables the network to coordinate intercell interference. Private LTE/5G also excels at delivering consistently high uplink throughput. This is one of the reasons it is effective in supporting IoT devices and automated systems.
One other performance difference to note is that Private LTE/5G also has the edge when it comes to seamless mobility within the coverage area. Cellular devices like mobile phones are designed to operate based on a specific set of (3GPP) operating standards that dictate, among other things, how they communicate with each cell across the network. This enables a higher degree of handoff performance as a user moves from cell to cell. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is less of a “controller-based” system and more of a “device-based” system; and not all Wi-Fi-enabled devices are designed to perform to the same standards. As a result, the risk of dropped calls is typically higher when roaming in a Wi-Fi environment.
But before we get too carried away, remember that the value of wireless performance is relative. What may be perfect for a large manufacturing facility, school district or municipality may be overkill for a store on Main Street or a five-person insurance office. So, again the answer as to which is best? It all depends.
Generally speaking, Private LTE/5G technologies like CBRS provide greater security than Wi-Fi. One reason is that a private network solution gives network managers complete control over which devices can access the network. This is done through SIM authentication and Air Interface Encryption which require the user’s identity to be authenticated and the data encrypted for successful transmission. While private Wi-Fi networks, can be designed with data encryption and user authentication, the technology was originally designed to support open access; thus far, the degree of security has not yet caught up to the 3GPP-standardized controls baked into private cellular. As the number of Private 5G deployments increase and the applied security standards move from 5G NSA (non-standalone) to 5G SA (standalone), private network security will become even stronger.
Wi-Fi or Private LTE?
It’s a trick question. By now, you see where this discussion is heading. Enterprise Wi-Fi and Private LTE/5G are two different wireless technologies with two different use cases.
Private LTE/5G is a good fit for:
- Networks supporting a high density of users or connected devices needing high reliability
- Outdoor campus areas where seamless mobility is important
- Networks supporting mission-critical traffic and/or high uplink throughput
- Environments requiring high end-to-end network security
- Use cases requiring low latency
- Enterprises that want to set up neutral hosts to allow both private and public subscribers
Enterprise Wi-Fi is a good fit for:
- Projects where cost is a primary weighted factor
- Smaller facilities, predominantly indoor, or those needing focused/isolated coverage
- Environments in which a small number of devices will need an internet connection
- Small areas needing high downlink throughput
The “best” one is the one that fits your requirements regarding cost, performance, security and any other metric you deem important. Of course, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface in this post. There’s a lot more to understand and consider before making a decision.
At Trilogy Next-Gen, we’re happy to be your guide. As a leading designer/manager of highly reliable and secure networks, we simplify the complex, helping you understand and leverage the right technologies to solve your most demanding network challenges. We connect your people, ideas and resources to the world.
For more information and to discover your solution contact us.
[i] The Rise of Private Wireless Explained; Financial Times, partner content; March 2021
[ii] Private LTE Market: Global Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecast 2023-2028; iMARC, research report; March 2022