When it comes to wireless connections in enterprise environments, Wi-Fi dominates – at least for now.

The advent of Wi-Fi 6 (IEEE 802.11ax) brought us faster, more stable connections, as well as increased capacity with reduced latency to support higher numbers of users and devices. It’s also the first wireless LAN technology that seamlessly interacts with cellular, according to the Dell’Oro Group.

Then, earlier this year, more exciting Wi-Fi news was announced: Wi-Fi 6E was unveiled. It makes use of special rules to share spectrum in the 6 GHz band opened up by the Federal Communications Commission for wireless devices. For instance, when used indoors, it offers a completely open spectrum; this band is clean, unused and will work only with devices capable of utilizing it.

But Wi-Fi isn’t the only wireless technology undergoing change. Cellular-based networks – previously used mostly outdoors – are now coming indoors to provide wireless service as well.

Let’s learn a little more about the differences between Wi-Fi (unlicensed) and cellular (licensed) connectivity.

The Basics of Wi-Fi Connectivity

Wi-Fi is a local area network used mostly indoors to connect devices (surveillance cameras, digital signage, PoE lighting fixtures, smartphones, laptops, etc.) to the internet via a router or wireless access point. It uses multiple unlicensed bands of radio waves to transmit information between devices (your router and computer, for example). The farther a device is from the router or wireless access point, the weaker the coverage becomes.

In order for Wi-Fi to work, a device needs a wireless adapter chip to translate data into radio signals and transmit it to a wireless access point or router via an antenna. From there, the data is sent to the internet through a wired Ethernet connection. The device, adapter chip and router/wireless access point must all operate using the same Wi-Fi standard: IEEE 802.11ax, 802.11ac, 802.11n, etc.

Obstacles (like concrete, metal, mirrors, adjacent wireless networks, etc.) can interfere with Wi-Fi performance. The number of devices accessing the network at any one time can degrade signals, too. (You’ve probably noticed that Wi-Fi performance worsens in high-population areas as devices vie for bandwidth.)

The Basics of Cellular Connectivity

Cellular networks are wide area networks used indoors and outdoors to connect devices to the internet via a cell signal using licensed bands. Devices utilizing cellular capability require a modem to send and receive data via a cellular tower.

These networks are sometimes considered safer than some Wi-Fi networks because, by default, cellular data is encrypted.

Cellular connectivity isn’t negatively impacted by obstacles the way Wi-Fi can be. It can transmit radio waves through building materials, physical barriers, etc.

Especially as 5G emerges and data-capacity demands increase, the proliferation of cellular is set to happen through the deployment of small cells, which transmit data to and from wireless devices. They allow the reuse of frequencies to increase cellular network capacity, quality and resilience. In addition to low-band spectrum, they also transmit data through mid- and high-band spectrums, which helps augment 5G.

Wi-Fi or Cellular: Which is Best?

Now that we know the differences, which one is going to win out: Wi-Fi or cellular? Our answer: Both!

Although both offer wireless connectivity, they don’t have to be in direct competition. Wi-Fi (unlicensed) and cellular (licensed) can complement each other, with each one being used to solve different kinds of problems (cellular can even serve as a back-up for Wi-Fi and vice versa).

The best news: Both can take advantage of the same cable topology – fiber and Category 6A cables, such as Belden’s REVConnect 10GXS System and REVConnect 10GXW System – which makes it simpler for you to prepare to accommodate both types of connectivity. Wi-Fi and cellular are also able to support new technology like 5G for higher speeds and more bandwidth.

It really comes down to one question: Do you want to connect in the licensed band through a service provider (cellular) or do you want to own your own network and have a Wi-Fi system? Or do you want both?

Whether it’s Wi-Fi, cellular, a combination of the two or something else altogether, Belden has in-house experts who are ready to help you create the infrastructure you need to support wireless connections indoors and outdoors. To learn more, register for our on-demand webinar: Cabling to Support In-Building Wireless.

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