The role WiFi will play in South Africa once 5G is made available

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2019 was supposed to be the year that 5G makes its way to South Africa and enable a number of significant enhancements to the local technology landscape. Sadly that it yet to come to fruition as we await for the necessary spectrum to be made available by government and, while we anxiously wait, there are a few elements to consider.

One such consideration is what will happen to the status of WiFi when 5G becomes a reality locally and touted as the new mobile broadband standard by which connectivity is delivered.

Will WiFi still have a role when 5G comes to prominence, should local businesses be evaluating their needs against the promise of the forthcoming broadband standard?

It’s a subject that Morten Illum, VP at Aruba (a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise company) has been pondering intensely.

“Although carriers are just beginning to deploy 5G networks, customers need to decide whether it is worth hanging around for 5G offerings next year, or whether it won’t actually deliver what they need,” he explains.

Better security?

One such element is security, according to Illum. With it being a misconception that cellular technologies are more secure than its WiFi counterpart. While LTE is relatively secure, it is not without its flaws, Illum adds.

“LTE is vulnerable to a range of attacks, including data interception and device tracking. 5G improves upon LTE security with multiple authentication methods and better key management,” says the VP.

“At the same time, Wi-Fi security continues to advance. Of course, Wi-Fi implementations that do not follow best practices, such as those without even basic password protection, are not optimal. Those configured with proper access controls and passwords are highly secure, and with new standards – specifically WPA3 and Enhanced Open,” he adds.

The vast investments that enterprises have made with regard to security compliance and regulation is another factor that needs to be considered when comparing 5G and WiFi. As such the former does not easily allow enterprises to deploy the chosen security and compliance solutions they wish.

“With macro 5G, from a security perspective, you get what you get,” notes Illum.

More to offer?

Another aspect that 5G is touted for is the superior speed it will deliver. Illum argues though that WiFi 6 can deliver comparable speeds. Added to this, the VP says WiFi 6 is 5G’s equal in terms of latency, spectral efficiency, connection density and reliability too.

He also notes that one of the key elements of 5G, such as network splicing and integrated edge compute, might be new on the mobile standard, but have been available in WiFi environments for some time.

“While these features are new for cellular, they aren’t new in the market. Enterprise networks, including Wi-Fi, have featured high connection density, network virtualisation and edge computing capabilities for decades,” he points out.

“Wi-Fi economics are more favourable from both per-square-foot and lifecycle cost perspectives – devices that only need Wi-Fi are cheaper than those that also have LTE, which would also have the added cost of having to manage SIM cards/subscriptions,” continues Illum.

Improved reliability?

With security and features being compared, the final element that Aruba VP looks at is reliability, which too has been a misconception in his opinion.

“Both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are extremely reliable when deployed correctly. Although macro 5G is deployed using licensed spectrum, which is less subject to interference than unlicensed spectrum, operating on licensed spectrum doesn’t always translate to higher levels of reliability,” he notes.

“Numerous enterprise Wi-Fi customers have achieved extremely high levels of reliability and performance in demanding environments, such as large, sophisticated manufacturing plants,” enthuses Illum.

He concludes by explaining that Wi-Fi and 5G are both evolving to better serve end users, and both markets will grow to address the macro trend of connecting devices and analysing the data generated by these devices.

“While 5G will serve applications requiring high-speed mobility and macro coverage, WiFi 6 will have its place too, as a reliable, secure and cost-effective access technology for most enterprise applications, as it does today,” Illum ends.

Robin-Leigh Chetty

Robin-Leigh Chetty

When he's not reviewing the latest smartphones, Robin-Leigh is writing about everything tech-related from IoT and smart cities, to 5G and cloud computing. He's also a keen photographer and dabbles in console games.