Wi-Fi brings the benefits of high speed and capacity to support an increasing concentration of mobile devices. However, due to underlying protocol shortcomings, this local area network (LAN) technology is best suited for non-mission-critical communications.
The Problematic Nature of Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi signals degrade rapidly as mobile clients move farther from access points, and when the client moves beyond the access point range, the client connection is broken before handing off to the next access point. When this occurs, communications and potentially critical data are lost. Integrators can work to minimize the hand-off time, but regular connectivity losses are impossible to eliminate in large Wi-Fi networks. As a result, many operators are seeking alternatives to Wi-Fi for mission-critical applications.
One alternative is Long-Term Evolution (LTE) carrier networks. Newer LTE networks are referred to as 5G. Cellular networks are fundamentally infrastructure-oriented with fixed-location base stations and a complex routing core. They offer benefits in urban and suburban areas because a single tower can cover a large area. However, coverage and data reliability may not always be strong enough when applying cellular connections to Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 applications and devices. The infrastructure-oriented nature of cellular networks causes coverage to be inconsistent when deep in a warehouse, processing plant or hospital.
A common assumption is these networks’ are great because of experience using your smartphone. Carriers configure the network specifically to give smartphones optimal service. They do this by allocating most of the bandwidth capacity (75 - 80%) to downstream access. This means Carrier LTE, regardless of the network operator, lacks the upstream capacity industrial operations needed to run multiple mission-critical applications, like closed-circuit TVs and tele-remote or autonomous machine control. Unlike smartphones, which consume large amounts of data, client nodes on industrial networks don’t consume much data; they generate it.
The Over-Hyped Fifth Generation of LTE
This is where next-generation 5G often enters the conversation. 5G indeed takes advantage of higher frequencies to deliver data rates faster than 4G, but that’s only part of the story. The frequencies of 5G have a significantly shorter range. 5G also requires better connections and higher signal quality, translating into improved line of sight, meaning significantly more towers to achieve higher data rates.
Despite all the hype, 5G still suffers from the same issue as 4G, where the bandwidth is disproportionately allocated to the download stream instead of the upload stream. Industrial users prioritize upload capacity the most and are looking beyond 5G for a solution for their mission-critical network applications.
The False Hope of Private LTE
Private LTE is an option if a customer is willing to purchase a network as opposed to renting airtime. Customers have more flexibility to allocate bandwidth, however even the most accomodating Private LTE provider only allows 40% of the bandwidth to upload. However, the biggest challenge Private LTE networks face is limited bandwidth. Bandwidth is a function of channel size. Frequencies are broken into channels. Licensed frequencies are expensive.
Even if the customer can afford the frequency, quite often, there is only limited licensed or unlicensed availability to frequency. Another challenge when deploying Private LTE is the higher cost of equipment and higher operating expenses compared to other wireless options. In short, a Private LTE network is an expensive, limited solution not built to support industrial mission-critical operations. Additionally, customers will pay more to maintain a 5G LTE network and will have less-than-ideal throughput over that network.
Despite Wi-Fi and LTE network limitations for industrial applications, there is an ideal alternative many businesses will likely recognize as superior to these more well-known alternatives.
A Modern Alternative
There is another solution flying under the radar that many customers fail to investigate thoroughly: mesh networks. Mesh networks are made up of nodes that form multiple active connections with each other, like a web. Nodes can be stationary or mobile. The ad-hoc nature of a mesh network lends itself to dynamic environments and can operate reliably around changing physical obstructions. This versatile type of network enables reliable data routing and large-scale connectivity. A robust mesh system effectively solves many commonplace networking shortcomings. The best mesh networks get stronger as they increase in size and density, and some mesh networks can even self-optimize configuration and how data moves between nodes. All Wi-Fi and LTE networks have a static configuration, meaning they only change the way they operate when an administrator makes a change to the network.
The wireless mesh network delivers fully mobile, scalable, high-capacity connectivity that systems need to run seamlessly. These compact, lightweight nodes can easily be deployed on fixed or moving assets, being placed directly onto equipment, robots and devices. Plus, a mesh network is far cheaper to purchase and maintain than a comparable Private LTE network and delivers far more bandwidth with significantly lower latency.
Those in the industrial space need to know their business has a network that supports intelligent, automated technology. The deployment of a unique network that is reliable and redundant can vastly improve warehouse operators’ productivity, efficiency, and profitability stakes. Access to effective communications in a dynamic environment, such as a warehouse or plant, can ensure operations thrive even during the most unforeseen challenges. You will sleep better knowing your network is self-optimizing even when you are not available to monitor it.