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Where Do Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Fit in Federal?

By Dolan Sullivan, Vice President of Federal at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company
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5G and Wi-Fi 6 are the next big leap in wireless communications. As these new technologies come to market, there has been a lot of lively discussion about where they fit. Many service providers are promoting 5G as an alternative to Wi-Fi 6 for organizations, and claiming that the rollout of 5G is the end of Wi-Fi. The reality is that the two technologies are complementary. It’s simply not an either/or situation.

The 5G or Wi-Fi 6 discussion has ramped up in Federal as the Department of Defense lays the groundwork for its 5G plans. The DoD recently kicked off a major initiative to integrate commercial 5G technologies into its communications networks, and it plans to test emerging 5G services and infrastructure across four US bases.

In November, the DoD announced an draft RFP for large-scale experimentation and prototyping for 5G. Use cases include establishing a dynamic spectrum-sharing testbed to demonstrate the capability to use 5G in environments with high-power midband radars; integrated augmented reality and virtual reality mission planning and training for training ranges, in both live and virtual environments; and smart warehouses that leverage 5G for enhanced logistics. The final RFP is planned for December, although the timing is contingent on a 2020 defense appropriations bill.

What’s Happening with 5G?
5G, which will roll out over the next several years, promises to radically improve the bandwidth, capacity and reliability of mobile broadband. 5G will push mobile speeds from 100 Mbps to upward of 10 Gbps, which will make 5G fast as fiber networks. It achieves this capacity by packing thousands of small antennae onto cell towers, utility poles and buildings. Reliability is also expected to be higher, given the small cell architecture.

But given the magnitude of the technology upgrade—everything from devices to service provider infrastructure—4G LTE will remain prevalent for years.

With all this mobile broadband capacity, watching ultra-HD video on mobile devices and use of augmented and virtual reality applications are expected to explode. 5G will be crucial for autonomous vehicles, smart energy grids and other connected infrastructure that can enhance safety, health and sustainability. 5G can be used to send and receive massive amounts of data, and in Federal, it will be used to support initiatives from smart bases and warehouses to battlefield operations and robotic surgery.

Like the current 4G LTE technologies, 5G can be supplied by mobile service providers or built as a private network. Network slices can be used to create customized virtual network overlays, with each slice tuned to a specific use case or security level.

What’s Happening with Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is everywhere, connecting everything. The global installed base of Wi-Fi devices is expected to exceed 15 billion—or twice the entire population of the Earth—by 2020.

Unlike previous generations of wireless LAN technology, Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t promise more raw speed. Instead, it’s designed to deliver a better user experience, especially in environments packed with mobile and IoT devices. Voice and video applications will run more smoothly.

Wi-Fi 6 is also highly promising for IoT use cases, with built-in capabilities to prolong the battery life of devices. That opens up more possibilities for automated building control systems, environmental sensors, structure monitoring, and the many ways we will control our physical surroundings through digital technologies.

Wi-Fi 6 also offers stronger security than previous generations of WLAN technologies. With the new WPA3 authentication and encryption standard, all traffic is encrypted to prevent snooping attacks on open networks. WPA3 also uses a stronger key exchange that’s resistant to dictionary attacks. WPA3 can also use 256-bit Suite B/CSNA encryption algorithms used for top secret or higher classified government networks.

It’s Wi-Fi 6 and 5G
At Aruba, we expect that in organizations’ indoor environments, Wi-Fi will assume the additional role of becoming the primary on-ramp to the 5G core network. In addition, the FCC is taking steps to allocate more spectrum for Wi-Fi in the 6 GHz band. It’s been more than 15 years since the last 5 GHz band was opened.

Ultimately, whether Wi-Fi 6 or 5G (or both) is deployed will depend on the use case, the location and the application. Each will serve different use cases but will work together to provide enhanced mobility, capacity and data rates.

Go Deeper
Gain additional insight into Wi-Fi 6 and 5G from my colleagues:

Comparing 5G to Wi-Fi 6 From a Security Perspective

WPA3: The Next Generation in Secure Mobility

What is 5G?

Wi-Fi as the On-Ramp to 5G

Goals and Key Features of Wi-Fi 6