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Wifi vs 5G: Choosing the Right Technology for a Future-Ready Building Today

Wifi vs 5G: Choosing the Right Technology for a Future-Ready Building Today

“What’s the difference between WiFi and 5G?” has got to be one of the most common questions I’ve been asked by those looking to invest in new wireless connectivity solutions recently.

It’s easy to see why there are so many questions, with nuances between generations of the same technologies to understand as well as the specific difference between wifi and cellular options as a whole. Other variations include:

  • WiFi v Mobile Network Infrastructure (cellular)
  • 4G v 5G
  • WiFi 5 v WiFi 6
  • Public v Private Mobile Radio

If you’re looking to answer the question of “which of these technologies do I need”, however, there is no single answer. It depends.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to answer the question is that some further distinctions need to be made in order to put the question into further context. For example, are we referring to mobile phone signal vs data internet connectivity? Mobile (cellular) calling vs Wi-Fi calling? Mobile data vs Wi-Fi Data?

Likewise, different users and devices will use different connection methods depending on circumstances and requirements:

  • Quality of Service (QoS)
  • Cost (i.e. free Wi-Fi vs mobile data package)
  • Frictionless experience (i.e. Wi-Fi login vs seamless mobile connection)
  • Coverage
  • Speed
  • Experience
  • Security
  • Latency

The value is in the application, not the infrastructure
It’s also important to note that the infrastructure is not where the true value lies; the magic happens in the delivery of the application.

Large venues (such as shopping centres and high-rise office buildings) with high footfall are increasingly expected to deliver the best possible mobile experience for their visitors and/or tenants, hence the need for some form of dedicated infrastructure solution to fully address mobile service challenges.

Each technology has a different use case/application and serves a different purpose. In most environments, both Wi-Fi and cellular are required in order to meet the needs of each and every user/application.

Why do venues experience poor in-building mobile coverage and service quality anyway?

Before we go any further, let’s first take a quick look at why in-building mobile coverage can be such an issue in the first place.

Mobile users would typically define a poor mobile service as experiencing one or more of the following:

  • Poor mobile coverage or reception
  • Dropped or intermittent call connectivity
  • Inability to send or receive text messages
  • Limited or slow access to the internet (for browsing or using social media)
  • Inability to connect to 3G/4G services

There can be numerous reasons for this poor connectivity, but generally speaking it boils down to one or more of the following:

  • Lack of network capacity: Large numbers of visitors own a mobile device and all expect to be able to use their device indoors – and at the same time!
  • Building construction materials: Modern building materials can affect the ability of outdoor mobile signals to penetrate indoors and reach end users
  • Insufficient signal strength: Strength of outdoor signals that can penetrate indoors is insufficient to adequately service demand

Meeting consumer expectations

Regardless of the device connection, the expectation is a frictionless service, with speeds matched to the need. For the consumer, the technology and how it works is of little importance. They just want a fast, reliable, secure service when they need it.

Right now, everyone has a ‘bad connectivity’ story to tell, but with the technology now available, there is no excuse to deliver poor in-building wireless connectivity any more, and as time moves on, everyone expect to be able to just pull out their phone and use it immediately.

Delivering such seamless connectivity across the built environment is becoming increasingly complex however, as more and more devices constantly exchange data and information; generally known as the Internet of Things (IoT).

However, it is not only about good coverage; the available networks need to be optimised and work together to deliver world-class experiences.

Some non-real-time applications will tolerate network interruptions and can recover gracefully, whereas others, such as video calling, may fail completely. Network selection needs to be matched to the environment and the task at hand.

So now we understand some of the problems, let’s have a look at the potential solutions – starting with the difference between the two technologies.

What is the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular?

There are 2 core differences between WiFi and Cellular:

Wi-Fi, historically, has been the wireless technology used indoors, whether that be in the home or the workplace. 5G (and it’s 4G/3G/2G generation forebears) has been used outside of these environments. 

Wi-Fi is designed for use in an unlicensed environment whereas cellular is not

80% of mobile use is indoors. And as we spend around around 8-10 hours a day outside of the home (during “normal” times), we can fairly safely assume that most of this occurs either at work, or during leisure time (shopping, eating out, or engaging in other leisure activities, for example).  

So the question we might be better asking is whether the building occupier or consumer/customer would prefer Wi-Fi or cellular connections during this time. 

Public Wi-Fi has a history of varied user experiences; some good, but many falling short of today’s expectations. Slow-to-load web pages, high latency and call-dropping are all things that asset owners must address in order to deliver a world-class digital experience within their venues.

Wi-Fi Benefits

  • Lower cost
  • Proven technology for the enterprise 
  • Free for the consumer (it should be noted that cellular calls are also free as part of standard bundle)
  • Well understood by IT departments and system integrators 
  • Lots of hardware manufacturer options 

Wi-Fi Limitations

  • Wi-Fi is a static technology and is an “island”; once you leave a Wi-Fi area you are forced to break that digital experience too
  • Security and reliability 
  • Handover between external outside (cellular) and indoor Wi-Fi network) 

The benefits of 5G to asset owners

The biggest challenge to the adoption of 5G right now is that most use cases and applications are yet to be defined and, therefore, it is hard to state exactly where the true value lies. 

Although mobile phones that support 5G are already on the market, take up has, thus far, been slow. This could be attributed to the fact that I mentioned earlier: there simply aren’t enough applications that support this new technology yet. 

But all that will change in a few years time when 5G is more prevalent. And if you want your building to be future-ready, you can be sure that your occupants will want 5G support, even if the demand isn’t there right now.

However, it is for this very reason that asset owners need to take a (logical) leap of faith that they will require 5G-ready infrastructure across their estates in order to provide the necessary digital infrastructure on which to deploy value-driven applications and experience to users when they are defined and more readily available. 

Advantages of 5G

Those that do commit to 5G-infrastructure will have a number of distinct advantages over those that do not, including:

Business agility: keep up with the pace of change as more and more wireless-first technologies are developed

Revenue-generation opportunities and cloud-based applications are delivered to the handset, enhancing user experience and brand loyalty whilst increasing stay-time 

5G and DAS Infrastructure has a much longer life-cycle (typically 10-20 years) in many cases, which, if correctly installed and managed, should perform reliably for many years to come

Being able to stay competitive and relevant in the modern world and providing a differentiated service offering 

Drivers for 5G within buildings

Cellular connections are fast becoming the primary wireless connection technology when away from the home or the office for a number of reasons. These include improved quality of service; an increasing reliance on automation, robots, mission-critical applications; and their ability to enable new business models to evolve.

For the built-environment, this will be centred around human-centric digital experiences (cloud-based service models).

Recent stats that highlight the growing need for in-building 5G solutions include:

  • 80% of mobile voice and data traffic begins and ends within buildings
  • 75% of mobile users indoors have to hunt for a good connection
  • 5G signal will struggle to penetrate buildings so dedicated solutions need to be deployed
  • In 2019, the average monthly subscriber used about 8.5 GB of data and this is expected to will increase to 45 GB per month by 2025 (Ericsson’s Mobility Report)

All of which highlight the ever-increasing demand for more data/high bandwidth applications that will place even further strain on indoor networks – even if the traffic is split between cellular and Wi-Fi. 

Increasing operational efficiencies

The implementation of 5G will revolutionise logistics by improving efficiency in fulfilment tasks and increasing the speed of transportation. Greater connectivity and improved reliability will help communications between brands, couriers and consumers. 

The full capacity of 5G will eventually also enable the rollout of automation in transport and warehouses, thanks to improved processing of the vast amounts of data required in real-time. 

Other trends driving the need for 5G (in commercial settings in particular) include: 

  • Increased reliance on HD video calls (e.g. Zoom and MS Teams)
  • Smart robots (serving food in restaurants and offering delivery and destination guidance)
  • AI-based facial recognition technologies
  • Precise indoor navigation and people flow analysis

Likewise, Artificial intelligence (AI) will develop on IoT devices via 5G – which will place even greater network availability bandwidth in order to support accurate real-time data to flow, ultimately facilitating smarter systems. 

This will be further compounded by the fact that Wi-Fi 6.0 (together with 5G and the evolution of 4G), is moving beyond wireless-first and into wireless-only models, and also the public safety infrastructure – which is currently delivered over 4G – will eventually move to 5G.

All these trends, as we are becoming to realise, will happen quicker than we can imagine and, therefore, increasing data demands on traditional wireless (WiFi and cellular) networks requires investment, to empower tenants who expect mobile connectivity anywhere, anytime, anyplace. 

It’s not a case of Wifi or 5G: Seamless in-building connectivity requires both

5G will accelerate the digital transformation of many industries, none more so than the traditional real estate industry.  Other fast-growing technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT) will drive this transformation even quicker, causing major disruptive outcomes for those slow to react.

Though Wi-Fi and cellular have traditionally operated in separate areas (Wi-Fi for connecting a variety of devices throughout homes and office buildings, whilst cellular primarily for connecting personal smartphones outdoors), times are changing.  In-building mobile connectivity was once an experience we craved, but in recent times it has become something we can’t do without.  

As we move towards an ever-increasingly connected world, the need for better connections with the potential for greater scalability, performance, accessibility, reliability, and broader reach with a lower cost of ownership will become more and more apparent. 

To meet these requirements the need for a reliable network that doesn’t require too much power is needed. 5G networks are the answer, with a 90% reduction in power consumption, guaranteeing up to 10 years of battery life for low power IoT devices. But even as 5G becomes the new standard, Wi-Fi will not disappear due its capability to support specific use cases more effectively.

So, it’s not really a case of Wi-Fi or Cellular, it’s Wifi and Cellular.  

This simple solution is that the future connected world and digital buildings agenda will drive demand for as much bandwidth and spectrum as possible, in order to be able to exploit and deploy the disruptive technologies that are emerging. The only way of deploying additional spectrum is by adding additional layers of infrastructure on top of already stressed Wi-Fi solutions. 

By deploying both Wi-Fi and 5G-ready wireless infrastructure, asset owners can deploy new technologies (AR to AI-Intelligence applications) immediately, without needing to think about the time and cost of creating fixed infrastructures, running fibre, adding network capacity and more.  

The future of wireless is where 5G and Wi-Fi will coexist indoors and across urban environments.  Both technologies will, ultimately, form a collaborative network ensuring all devices are connected at all times across a superfast, low latency, but still reliable and robust, digital connection. 

The future is connected. The future is wireless. 

Interested in finding out more about how to get your building future-ready? Get in touch to arrange a free consultation call with an advisor today.