Nov 22 2019

5G and Wi-Fi 6: What’s the Difference, and Where Do They Belong on Campus?

The next iterations of wireless connectivity will deliver mobility, speed and optimal performance.

Student device usage is on the rise: As noted by recent EDUCAUSE research, 95 percent of postsecondary students have smartphones and 91 percent own laptops. The result is growing demand for anytime, anywhere access that supports peer-to-peer collaboration, project coordination and student-to-staff communication. To meet evolving expectations, colleges are embracing enhanced connection deployments, including smart campus Wi-Fi and cellular frameworks such as 5G.

Now, there’s a new wireless tech trend on the horizon: Wi-Fi 6. According to Dave Chen, senior product marketing manager for Aruba, an HPE company, Wi-Fi 6 “brings much faster speeds and delivers the latest in security for mobile users, Internet of Things devices and latency-sensitive applications, even in crowded areas.”

But what exactly is Wi-Fi 6? How does it compare to 5G, where does it make sense to deploy each of these solutions on campus and what’s the timeline for adoption? Here’s what you need to know.

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5G Networks Will Provide Better Signaling for Mobile Campus Users

5G has been just over the digital horizon for years. This fifth generation of cellular connection offers enhancements to both speed and simultaneity: more devices connected at the same time, with improved download and upload speeds.

To meet user demand, most campus cellular networks now leverage 4G or LTE (Long Term Evolution) infrastructure. With enhanced radio technologies and larger frequency bands than current solutions, 5G delivers benefits such as: 

• Decreased latency: Using orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), 5G networks offer the potential for 1-millisecond latency, which is 10 times as fast as 4G.

• Increased capacity: As noted by Digital Trends, 5G should deliver 100 times the traffic capacity of current networks by replacing large connective “masts” at a distance with small cells densely packed at scale.

• Improved signaling: Greater connection density paves the way for more efficient signaling and reliable connections.

True mobility is the greatest strength of emerging 5G networks: reliable, authenticated connections at scale that travel with users as they move. 

The caveat? Don’t expect full 5G deployments from popular cellular providers or on-campus networks just yet. As noted by Cisco, rollouts across select cities are likely to happen late this year or in early 2020, with most smartphone makers on track to deploy 5G support for new devices sometime next year. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Better Wi-Fi Positions Colleges to Leverage Smart Campus Tech

Wi-Fi 6 Promises Top Performance for Smart Campus Technologies

What about Wi-Fi 6? This networking standard is on a speedier adoption track than 5G, but largely under the radar. Multiple device manufacturers now offer Wi-Fi 6-enabled access points, but it’s not generating the same hype as 5G. 

What’s the difference, and why does it matter?

Chen puts it simply: “Wi-Fi 6 is the next iteration of the Wi-Fi Alliance standard for wireless connectivity based on the 802.11ax protocol and is available now from a number of device manufacturers like Apple and Samsung, as well as enterprise networking vendors like Aruba.”

Right now, most campus networks rely on the fifth-generation Wi-Fi Alliance standard: 802.11ac. Wi-Fi 6 is backwards-compatible with this standard, but offers critical advantages, in large part because the newest iteration leverages essential cellular technologies — such as orthogonal frequency-division multiple access and multi-user, multiple input, multiple output — to deliver faster speeds and improved security across indoor and outdoor environments.

Key components of Wi-Fi 6 include:

• Multi-user, multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO): While MU-MIMO is already used by current wireless connections to allow four simultaneous router connections, Wi-Fi 6 doubles this capacity to eight.

• orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA): With OFDMA, multiple devices can receive data from a single transmission.

While Wi-Fi 6 can potentially boost transfer speeds to 9.6 gigabits per second — up from 3.5Gbps on fifth-generation Wi-Fi — speed isn’t the primary advantage. According to Chen, Wi-Fi 6 “has been designed and optimized for the unique wireless challenges that educational environments typically face — radio frequency interference from electronics, signal attenuation from concrete, metal and glass — and especially network congestion from other Wi-Fi clients on the network.”

In addition, Wi-Fi 6 can improve device battery life with targeted wake time (TWT); instead of being always on, devices wake at predetermined intervals and connect to the network.

While Wi-Fi 6 excels in close-quarter environments with high traffic and connection volumes, 5G facilitates connections on the move. 

But the two do share common ground. According to Chen, “Wi-Fi 6 is also an on-ramp to 5G services in enterprise or campus networks because it can be used like small cells and distributed antenna systems, as a radio access network for 5G.” 

New cellular technology, meanwhile, can be used as WAN uplinks for Wi-Fi services to enhance total coverage.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Higher Education Invests in Wi–Fi Technology for Smart Campus Projects

Wireless Tech Trends Point to an Expanded Internet of Things

So, where does it make sense to deploy Wi-Fi 6 on your campus?

Chen points to use cases such as leveraging Wi-Fi for Internet of Things applications. With the ability to connect more devices simultaneously and reduce interference in small spaces, Wi-Fi 6 is ideal for IoT devices on campus such as sensors and cameras. Paired with the TWT feature, even battery-operated devices can become part of campus IoT networks, as power drain drops off significantly. 

There’s also a future for 5G and IoT, especially as devices handle greater data volumes at speed. The small-cell nature of 5G deployments can shrink the distance between data and cloud-based compute resources to reduce total processing time. Wi-Fi 6 doesn’t rewrite the wireless playbook — instead, it updates current iterations with more device connections, reduced battery drain and improved security via WPA3 and the Enhanced Open standard.

While 5G remains a media mainstay as large-scale adoption looms over the next few years, Wi-Fi 6 upgrades are already possible, offering the potential for backwards-compatible communications that improve stability, enhance scalability and pave the way for dual-track campus connections.

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