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Is 5G or WiFi 6 the network of choice for industrial IoT?

(Image credit: Image Credit: Mediacom)

Over the next 12 months, the widespread deployment of 5G networks and the rollout of Wi-Fi 6 will severely impact enterprises around the world. These technologies will, without a question, rapidly accelerate the development of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also referred to as Industry 4.0.

Analysts expect Wi-Fi 6 solutions to be cheaper than 5G due to scale, unlicensed spectrum and the fact that both consumers and corporate IT teams understand Wi-Fi. It is ubiquitous. For IIoT deployments however, catering to industries such as transportation, logistics, automotive and defence – those that require tens of thousands of sensors in complex networks - Wi-Fi 6 will be significantly more challenging than what many people realise. For a number of reasons, 5G will emerge as the network of choice for these heavy-duty IIoT users. And technology executives must adjust their strategies now accordingly.

IIoT is growing fast. Very fast

The IIoT is made up of interconnected sensors, connectivity networks and big data analytics. IHS Markit estimates that the number of IIoT sensors will increase from just over 440 million in 2016 to more than 1.5 billion in 2021. And the market for Industry 4.0 products and services is expected to reach $310 billion by 2023, a compound annual growth rate of more than 27 per cent. That growth, however, will only be achieved when the underlying network provides the throughput, real-time performance, coverage, security and availability necessary to enable the IIoT.

Both 5G and Wi-Fi 6 hold promise as network technologies to support IIoT. But there are important differences enterprises need to bear in mind.

Wi-Fi 6

Wi-Fi 6, which is the new common name given to 802.11ax, is packed with many technological advancements that enhance the performance of Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi 6 access points can be deployed in dense environments, such as stadiums and transportation hubs, to support more concurrently connected users and devices with diverse use cases. A range of technologies that optimise spectral efficiency, increase throughput and reduce power consumption make this possible. What’s more, Wi-Fi 6 will still work in unlicensed (2.4 and 5 GHz) spectrum.

Industries with large-scale IIoT deployments require effective network planning and strategic placement of access points, as well as plans to reduce inter-AP interference.


5G – now being deployed by a growing number of mobile operators - is the latest generation of cellular communications. It will elevate mobile broadband experiences and support a host of new services, such as mission-critical communications, remote control of critical infrastructure, vehicles and the IIoT. 5G also will natively support all spectrum types, including licensed, shared and unlicensed, as well as all bands, including < 6 GHz, > 6GHz and mmWave.

5G will enable a wide range of deployment models, from traditional macro-cells to hotspots, as well as new ways to connect, such as device to device. In addition, 5G is expected to deliver up to 10 Gbps peak rates, reduce latency to 1 millisecond and improve battery life up to 10 years for low-power IoT devices, yielding a more uniform user experience.

On licensed bands, 5G can work with 100 MHz of bandwidth, as opposed to between 20 and 40 MHz of bandwidth on unlicensed bands. 5G on licensed bands increases data rates, decreases latency and reduces interference for base stations and between devices. This is because it doesn’t need to ‘listen’ before transmission. This will result in less interference and delivers better connectivity than Wi-Fi 6.

What’s more, 5G also works on unlicensed bands, another benefit over Wi-Fi 6 in an IIoT setting. Techniques like Cooperative MultiPoint transmission (CoMP) can be used to further reduce interference when working in unlicensed bands. 5G also is supported by 3GPP security infrastructure at protocol levels to ensure network security. As resources are always managed by 5G infrastructure, 5G networks are expected to provide outstanding quality of service at the network level.

Additionally, 5G will enable beamforming to improve coverage, as well as ‘network slicing’. This allows the network to be segmented for specific use cases on the same network. 5G also has native support for cloud implementations and supports edge computing to dramatically cut latency.

Why 5G favours IIoT use cases

A growing number of use cases have emerged illustrating 5G’s importance to the IIoT. For example, the German government is freeing up 100 MHz of licensed spectrum for industrial use. Using that spectrum, Volkswagen will deploy a private 5G network to support its manufacturing systems.

Another example is the Finnish private LTE provider Ukkoverkot, which is setting up a private LTE network to bring connectivity, automation and intelligence to the Port of Kokkola in Finland. Ports have varying demands for network security, device service and control systems. The network will support rescue crafts and a range of other vehicles, as well as service everyday port functions.

The Finnish network will offer private wireless network connectivity to local companies within the port, as well as for running its own port operations. The solution is intended to use large industrial IoT data for more intelligent and efficient port operations. According to reports, the LTE network was chosen over Wi-Fi because it provides superior security, reliability, delivers pervasive coverage and has the ability to offer network slices for other users in the area. The LTE network paves the way for the enterprise to build a private 5G network.

In some cases, 5G over licensed spectrum will be the only option for IIoT deployments. Consider these: 

  • When real-time network access is needed, for example to control robots, monitor and react to alarms or anomalies
  • When the aggregate throughput of all sensors requires a higher amount of spectrum
  • When moving assets across a larger geography, such as with tracking assets in the logistics industry

Plan now for the future

5G appears poised to become the network of choice for large-scale IIoT deployments. The technology provides uniform macro coverage and mobile coverage to support applications like asset tracking in transportation networks. 5G also supports complex manufacturing processes and business processes, providing enhanced security options and real-time monitoring. Industries with small- and medium-sized networks with simpler connectivity needs may opt for Wi-Fi 6.

In the early stages, use cases and specific application parameters will drive the choice between 5G and Wi-Fi 6. And to be sure, the choice isn’t black and white. The IIoT will make use of both technologies. To make an informed decision about which one will better meet their needs, enterprises need to evaluate the pros and cons of each. There’s no right or wrong answer – it needs to fit with the business.

Businesses should holistically estimate their data flow requirements and compatibility with their existing IT infrastructure. Undertake a cost-benefit analysis of 5G versus Wi-Fi 6 for the expected use cases. Only through a thorough analysis and with in-depth planning will enterprises be able to realise all the potential advantages that the IIoT has to offer. This will ensure that their business processes are efficient, it fosters dynamic decision making, predicts maintenance needs and reduces downtime.  It provides improved control of machinery, tracking assets and much more. The connectivity conundrum between WiFi 6 versus 5G is not an easy decision to make.

Saurabh Garg, Vice President of Engineering, Altran
Image Credit: Mediacom

Saurabh Garg is Vice President of Engineering at Altran. He has over 30 years of industry experience in system engineering and design leadership.