Many Zebra mobile computers, tablets and wearables are wireless network agnostic, which means they will connect to both Wi-Fi and cellular networks – including private cellular networks leveraging Citizen Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) bands in the U.S. as well as other bands worldwide. Because of this, our customers have the flexibility to setup any type of wireless network they deem best for their business operations inside and outside the four walls.
I know figuring out which one is “best” is easier said than done, so I asked Puneet Shetty, Vice President of Product Management, Celona, a Zebra Alliance Partner, to help clarify some things about private wireless networks. My hope is that this information will help you make the right decision for your business.
Nader: First off, we know more people are talking about private wireless networks, but I think it’s important to explain exactly what that means because, technically, someone could consider Wi-Fi to be a private wireless network.
Puneet: Great point. The term “private wireless” is synonymous with “private cellular.” And based on the cellular technology being used, it could be a 4G (LTE) or a 5G network. In the U.S., most private cellular networks use the CBRS (also called “n48 band”), whereas worldwide other bands like n77, n78, n79 are being used for private wireless. Wi-Fi, however, is not considered private wireless as this term has been adopted by the industry to reference cellular-based technology. When you hear Celona, Zebra and many others talk about private wireless networks in the context of enterprise, industrial or government applications, the reference is to cellular-based technologies like private LTE, private 5G or CBRS networks.
Nader: Many organizations already have Wi-Fi networks set up within their buildings. Is there any reason why they should consider replacing these existing networks with private wireless networks?
Puneet: In places like distribution centers, shipyards, and factories that have large outdoor and indoor spaces, coverage and consistent connectivity is needed for workflow management. This includes workers using tablets, barcode scanners, computers installed on forklifts, voice collaboration, worker safety applications, equipment monitoring and asset tracking, amongst others. Wi-Fi, while great in an indoor office environment, does not work very well in these “carpet-less” enterprise and mission-critical applications because those are not the use cases that Wi-Fi technology was designed to support. However, these applications are where private wireless shines.
For example, private wireless offers better coverage indoors and outdoors as well as to workers or AGVs and AMRs in motion due to their higher transmit power, interference free spectrum and better noise performance.
Private wireless also gives enterprise organizations the ability to manage connectivity for mission-critical applications since bandwidth and latency are centrally planned and managed rather than via the contention-based mechanism used in Wi-Fi. With private cellular technologies, organizations also have the ability to set up the wireless network where they need it – and with 20-30% the number of access points that Wi-Fi needs for the same level of coverage. Fewer access points mean lower installations and maintenance costs along with a lower total cost of ownership (TCO).
Nader: What if their Wi-Fi works just fine right now? Would you still recommend they transition to a private wireless network?
Puneet: We always tell decision-makers within our customers’ organizations that they will have to evaluate if the existing Wi-Fi solution will entirely meet their business’s coverage and reliability needs today and in the future. Increased levels of automation, such as use of automated guided vehicles (AGV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) along with the increased use of advanced video surveillance and analytics, will trigger the need for private wireless in the future if they haven’t already. As will the remote predictive maintenance of equipment, expansion of workflow operations both indoors and outdoors, and on-premise asset tracking.
Nader: Is there a scenario in which a private cellular network is the only viable option for total – and reliable – wireless coverage?
Puneet: Firstly, consider large outdoor spaces like an oil refinery, an outdoor yard at a distribution center, a factory floor and even supporting venue operations, such as point of sale (POS) at crowded spaces like sports stadiums. It’s hard to cost-effectively provide reliable Wi-Fi coverage at these locations due to the short range of Wi-Fi, cost of cabling additional access points, lack of prioritization mechanisms for critical traffic and poor Wi-Fi performance in the presence of microwave and other radio interference. Also, if you are using advanced technologies such as AMRs, connected helmets, worker safety equipment, video surveillance and the like, the technology and equipment would essentially be useless if connectivity is unreliable – and that could be highly detrimental to operational performance and business outcomes.
Private wireless is more viable for these applications as the radio characteristics of private wireless enable less radio frequency (RF) interference, a higher coverage range, fewer access points and lower TCO. Also, 4G/5G technology offers better mobility and the ability to centrally manage traffic priority on the network.
Nader: Would it still make sense for an organization to set up a private wireless network to support outdoor operations if they have commercial cellular network coverage in that area?
Puneet: Even though a commercial cellular network has good coverage outdoors, some indoor – and even some outdoor – spots may suffer from poor coverage. Concrete, iron, and other construction materials used in manufacturing facilities and warehouses do not easily allow the commercial cellular signal indoors thereby causing these dead spots. Private wireless networks can be setup indoors and outdoors precisely where coverage is needed.
Plus, there are three more things to consider:
Data on a commercial cellular network is metered and often requires a commercial contract with the carrier for data charges and overages. Private cellular networks, on the other hand, use unmetered data.
Unlike commercial cellular, the private cellular network is managed by the enterprise, which has better control over network availability, security policies and other critical settings. With private wireless, the data in flight and at rest is fully under the control of the enterprise since, unlike public cellular networks or cloud-based services, data never leaves the premises of the enterprise network.
Getting guaranteed throughput and latency for mission-critical applications would be a challenge with commercial networks whereas, with a private wireless network, these can be managed by the enterprise.
Nader: If an organization uses Wi-Fi inside the four walls and a private wireless network outside the four walls, is there anything it will need to do to maintain connectivity between the wireless networks?
Puneet: Everyone’s situation will be different, so this is really a question better answered in a one-on-one conversation with our team. What I can say is that a lot of research and development (R&D) is occurring at Celona and Zebra to support seamless transitions between private wireless and Wi-Fi networks in the future. Perhaps that’s something we can talk about more in the coming months.
Nader: Some people are concerned that private wireless networks are more challenging to set up, maintain and scale than Wi-Fi networks. Is that true?
Puneet: As with any new technology, there is a learning curve associated with private cellular. However, you don’t need to be a cellular radio expert to start taking advantage of this network technology. With turnkey solutions like Celona’s 5G LAN, everything an organization needs to get started is provided.
Nader: You mentioned Celona’s 5G LAN solution is turnkey. Can you elaborate?
Puneet: We offer an end-to-end private wireless 5G LAN solution as a subscription. It includes everything you need to setup a private wireless network, including indoor and outdoor access points, edge appliances and software, a cloud-based orchestrator to manage the network, and SIMs/eSIMs for the devices.
Customers appreciate Celona 5G LAN’s ease of network integration, support for MicroSlicing™ technology for deterministic QoS on a per application basis, and end-to-end secure communication. Furthermore, the work we’ve done with Zebra to certify several Zebra handheld mobile computers and tablets takes the guesswork out of device selection for a customer.
Nader: What is the biggest advantage of private wireless networks over Wi-Fi besides its ability to offer reliable wireless service in otherwise dark areas?
Puneet: Private wireless networks give enterprise teams the ability to manage connectivity for mission-critical applications and devices, especially if using Celona’s patented MicroSlicing technology. This unique capability enables enterprises to guarantee predictable quality of service (QoS) and service-level agreements (SLA) for mission-critical applications versus the best-effort contention-based mechanism used in Wi-Fi networks. Additionally…
Network-controlled scheduling and handover makes private wireless inherently suitable for use cases that involve mobility.
Private wireless uses SIM/eSIM technology for authentication, and the network identifies and connects to the device, rather than device connecting to the network. This inherently makes the solution more secure than Wi-Fi.
And, not to sound repetitive, but I must stress that private wireless technology provides you with the ability to set up the wireless network where you need it and with 20-30% the number of access points that Wi-Fi needs for same level of coverage. Fewer access points mean lower installation and maintenance costs and a lower TCO.
Nader: What’s the best first step for an organization that is considering a private wireless network but wants confirmation that is the right choice for their operation?
Puneet: Celona offers a lot of educational collateral, a TCO calculator, and a network planner at https://www.celona.io/zebra. We also offer customized demos and a free trial to enable organizations to try the solution risk free. Furthermore, several Zebra tablets are already certified for Celona 5G LAN and can be quickly tested on the network, including the ET45, ET85 and L10ax models.
If you’d like to connect with Puneet and the Celona team, you can reach them here: https://www.celona.io/zebra.
This webinar may also be helpful:
Additional information on the pros and cons of different wireless network technologies is available in these posts: