With the lavish press and advertising spend devoted to 5G, one might think that next-generation wireless networks in the enterprise will revolve almost exclusively around 5G, with Wi-Fi 6 playing a supporting part at best. But that’s not the reality uncovered by Deloitte’s 2021 global advanced wireless survey of 437 networking executives from nine countries, which found that 45% of enterprises are concurrently testing or deploying Wi-Fi 6 and 5G for their advanced wireless initiatives.3 Indeed, nearly all respondents (98%) expected their organization would be using both technologies within three years. Projected investment reflects coadoption as well: Over the next three years, on average, these leaders expect to allocate 48% of their enterprise wireless network spending to Wi-Fi and 52% to cellular technologies.
This is not entirely a surprise, as Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have some similar capabilities but also have different, complementary strengths. Both technologies enable higher speeds, lower latency, and increased device density and network capacity. The differences lie in areas such as range, support for mobility, and cost. Wi-Fi 6 and its predecessors tend to be used for smaller, less expensive local area networks, often for connectivity inside homes and offices, while cellular networks such as 5G are used for both indoor and outdoor wide area networks, often for devices that move across large geographic areas (for instance, for smart city applications, ports and airports, and connected vehicles).4 Because decision-makers are targeting a blend of usage scenarios, it makes sense that they’re evaluating both technologies to determine what combination will work best for their situation (figure 1).5
Further, unlike past generations of wireless, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are designed to work together smoothly, and the wireless industry appears headed toward a future in which devices can roam securely and seamlessly between all types of wireless networks.6 Industry associations and standards bodies are co-developing future network standards that will enable convergence of cellular and noncellular technologies, permitting integration of Wi-Fi 6 into core 5G networks.7 The expected benefits of an integrated architecture include improved traffic control on factory floors and the ability to provide uninterrupted service for smart city and edge applications.8
What’s clear is that these buildouts will not be merely tactical solutions. Advanced wireless is a strategic priority for the enterprises surveyed, with eight in 10 networking executives expecting advanced wireless technologies to transform their enterprises substantially by 2023, changing how they operate, develop new products and business models, and engage with customers. These decision-makers already regard Wi-Fi 6 and 5G as the most critical wireless technologies for their businesses (figure 2). Sixty-five percent of the networking leaders in our study expect Wi-Fi 6 to be a top-three critical wireless technology for their business by 2023, and 76% expect 5G to be in the top three as well.9 Over the next few years, as wireless infrastructures are built out and more devices become available, leaders expect both technologies to become even more significant.
Though Wi-Fi 6 and 5G are equal partners in terms of building solutions, our study revealed that enterprise Wi-Fi 6 pilots and deployments are outpacing 5G in all the countries we studied, with double-digit gaps in some regions. While those gaps may narrow, we expect the Wi-Fi 6 enterprise adoption lead to persist through 2022 (and beyond). One likely reason is cost, as Wi-Fi 6 devices are more affordable and more widely available than 5G devices.10 Acquiring suitable spectrum may also be a challenge in some countries: Whereas Wi-Fi 6 uses free, unlicensed spectrum, 5G generally requires enterprises to license spectrum from network providers or government entities. In a number of major markets around the world, governments have set aside specific spectrum that can be assigned to a company for a particular area, such as a manufacturing campus or airport, often for a nominal cost. But policy, spectrum band ranges, conditions, and costs vary by country.
Ease of deployment has likely also contributed to Wi-Fi 6’s head start. Wi-Fi networks are already widely established, along with a large base of Wi-Fi devices. As enterprises upgrade to Wi-Fi 6 networks, they can take advantage of backward compatibility, avoiding the need to replace older Wi-Fi devices all at once.11 Familiarity may also be a boon: While there are 4G LTE private cellular networks around the world, these are outnumbered by enterprise Wi-Fi deployments, meaning that many IT departments already have expertise in deploying and operating Wi-Fi networks. Conversely, setting up a 5G network (either alone or with a network operator) generally means learning something new and potentially more complex, adjusting to a standard that is still rolling out, and perhaps working with a partner that is also just getting up to speed on 5G.12
It’s worth noting, however, that the countries reporting the highest levels of Wi-Fi 6 pilots and deployments (Germany, Brazil, United Kingdom, China, and Australia) were also those that reported the highest levels of 5G pilots and deployments. Once again, it’s apparent that both technologies are being adopted concurrently and that both have a place in advanced wireless initiatives.
Three-quarters of the decision-makers in our 2021 advanced wireless survey believed that advanced wireless could create significant competitive advantage for their organization. To capture this advantage, organizations implementing advanced wireless initiatives can keep several things in mind.
A critical first step is to be crystal clear about goals. Innovation is a key objective for advanced wireless adoption. Our executive survey identified the desire to innovate using new technologies as one of the two top drivers of adoption, with four in five respondents reporting that advanced wireless was very or extremely important to their organization’s ability to implement Internet of Things, AI, big data analytics, and edge computing capabilities.13 Improving efficiency was the other top adoption driver, and enhancing customer interactions was the third most commonly cited driver.
Adopters should also determine which usage scenarios they wish to target, their application requirements, and deployment and spending constraints. Understanding Wi-Fi 6 and 5G’s specific capabilities and associated costs (e.g., for devices, solutions, and customer-premises equipment) can help decision-makers determine which would be better suited to different situations.14 For some advanced enterprise use cases, such as automated guided vehicles and autonomous robots in industrial IoT scenarios, both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G have proponents and may even be adopted side by side.15
Because advanced connectivity is a key enabler of other innovative technologies, leaders should increasingly treat advanced networking as a key component of their organization’s end-to-end enterprise architecture. As they consider how to architect and manage a landscape with heterogenous underlying technologies, networking executives face a key question around which partners to engage in this effort. To assemble complete advanced wireless solutions, organizations generally engage with a variety of vendors, such as cloud and application providers, consulting firms and other integrators, telecom companies, and network equipment providers.16
Given the role that infrastructure providers and device makers have played in initial Wi-Fi 6 trials, tapping into their expertise could help an enterprise assess its capabilities and establish pilots.17 Telecoms have a great deal to offer advanced wireless adopters too. With the benefit of holding 5G-suitable spectrum, many are seeking to extend their public networks deeper into the private setting. Given their extensive experience running cellular networks, network providers can offer key capabilities such as cybersecurity, privacy, and established relationships with other carriers to support WAN and mobility use cases. And for some mission-critical services (such as those that need to be free of device interference), dedicated, licensed 5G spectrum may have a distinct advantage. And, with better integration of Wi-Fi 6 and 5G anticipated, network operators will have the ability to direct and optimize traffic across both types of networks—for instance, offloading to Wi-Fi 6 to reduce cellular congestion.18
Whatever the end, Wi-Fi 6 will almost certainly be an important part of the means. As 5G’s essential partner in advanced wireless solutions, Wi-Fi 6 will be increasingly central to realizing the benefits that organizations are pursuing through next-generation connectivity.
Deloitte’s Global Telecommunications, Media & Entertainment practice focuses on helping companies thrive in the sector’s continually evolving business landscape. Our breadth of knowledge can help organizations uncover opportunities and understand trends that can spark new growth.