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Network 101: 5 Essential Wireless Protocols to Support Your Enterprise Now and in the Future

by Drew Turney
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Wireless access is always evolving, and it can be confusing to separate the facts from the marketing spin. Here are five essential wireless protocols you should know now.

The number of access points and devices we use in the workplace, the number of connections between them, and the amount of data they have to exchange is exploding. Cloud computing means more work done on endpoint nodes while computation and data storage happen on far-flung servers. And the Internet of Things (IoT), with its growing number of sensors all talking to each other, will join the morass.

The number of wireless protocols being touted by carriers and device manufacturers is just as dizzying. You need a clear-eyed, informative guide about the unwired standards that will be critical for your enterprise to excel. 

802.11ax

You've heard the latest 802.11 Wi-Fi standard by its sexier brand name, Wi-Fi 6, built to supersede the older 802.11ac standard most of us are using now. It has an advertised maximum speed of 10Gbps (that's enough to download ten 720p quality movies in a second), but that's theoretical and depends on a lot of variables. Still, you should get almost 3Gbps, which will still go a long way when shared in even a large workplace.

It's also smarter about the way it bundles and transports data, meaning far fewer dropouts or interruptions, so it's much more reliable in congested environments. Lastly and perhaps most important in a corporate setting, it supports stronger security standards.

 802.11ac wave1

Now Wi-Fi 6 is approaching fast, the previous standard has been retroactively termed 'Wi-Fi 5'. It was developed with just a few users in mind (the average speed was 866.7 Mbps), accessing router modems from the burgeoning laptop fleet.

802.11ac popularized Wi-Fi throughout the world thanks to being the first protocol to use dual-band technology, supporting 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices at the same time (e.g.,  your laptop and smartphone could connect concurrently without interference).

Why is it still worth knowing? In a perfect world, every business user across the world would dispose of 802.11ac-compatible kit overnight (assuming it's recycled responsibly), but with devices from the last decade still pivotal in many enterprises, Wi-Fi 5 is backward compatible with standard going right back to 2009's 802.11n.

5G

Over the next year or so, 5G will be touted in so much electronics marketing you're going to think it's the Holy Grail – and you won't be far wrong. With a rough top speed of 3Mbps, 3G took advantage of early smartphone apps with light data needs. At around 50Mbps, 4G was built for much heavier use like the ability to watch HD video content on a phone. 5G has a theoretical maximum speed of between 10 and 50Gbps – orders of magnitude faster and able to handle the heaviest data needs across the organization.

But it's about much more than speed. Older protocols weren't really built for low latency, but 5G is, with many major carriers reporting latency as low as 20ms. In the real world that means gaming, self-driving cars, etc., will have split-second responsiveness, and in the enterprise, all your live work in progress, IoT information, and high bandwidth content will be (almost) constantly accessible with only a click.

5GNR

Because we'll have 4G and Wi-Fi 5 tools and applications for some time yet, 5GNR (for “New Radio”) is designed for legacy hardware and software. It's going to be particularly pertinent to carriers who have hundreds of millions of dollars of older generation infrastructure. When it comes to towers and systems still working with 4G, carriers can dynamically share the signal between 4G LTE and 5G NR. Called dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), it can be deployed on existing 4G LTE equipment that's 5GNR compatible.

What does that mean for you? If your service provider hasn't completely deployed a 5G infrastructure, you might still enjoy the benefits of 5G connectivity with all the advantages of low latency and greater range.

Bluetooth

Since its first patent in 1989, Bluetooth was designed as a short range, low-bandwidth solution. Isn't Wi-Fi 6 and 5G going to blow its performance out of the water? Indeed, but imagine you run a large factory with hundreds or thousands of IoT devices or a large workspace in a skyscraper with dozens or hundreds of people all accessing handheld devices or laptops. Upgrading all the sensors, nodes, and transmitters to be new-generation compatible will put a considerable dent in your bottom line.

For close quarters communication, look at lower powered, cheaper and, in some cases, older technologies as a stop gap. While you're deploying and slowly bringing your mobile phone fleet up to date for 5G across the organization, low-powered, low-bandwidth tasks (e.g., a thermometer reading on a robotic lathe, transfer of a spreadsheet) can be transmitted via Bluetooth, the result then folded into your wider, Wi-Fi 6-enabled dataset for action.

Conclusion

Wire-free telecommunications and data exchange is going to become even more important as business continues to evolve thanks to adoption of new standards like Wi-Fi 6 and 5G. But while the new systems promise previously unheard of speeds, uptime, and security, knowing how and where older generations can strengthen your wireless infrastructure is an additional key to success. 

This article was originally published on Wednesday Feb 10th 2021