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What Are the Key Differences between CBRS and Wi-Fi?
CBRS spectrum in the United States enables organizations to create private LTE/5G wireless networks of their own by accessing a shared cellular wireless band within the FCC managed radio spectrum. Wi-Fi uses radio waves to provide wireless network connectivity to wide ranging set of devices (primarily end user owned and managed) across the large enterprise, public venues, small business and home networks.
Both solutions are convenient and affordable for private enterprise deployments, but CBRS-based private cellular networks are designed to enable interference-free wireless connectivity to enterprise-owned devices, with a predictable service level with regards to latency and throughput performance.
For a deeper dive into the technical differences between private LTE and 5G cellular wireless and Wi-Fi based connectivity in the enterprise, take a look our technical guide on the topic.
What Exactly Is CBRS?
CBRS is a new block of radio spectrum designated by the FCC in the United States for private use within the enterprise. This allows private organizations to build their own private mobile networks without relying on commercial cellular wireless network plans. The CBRS band operates on a 150 MHz-wide spectrum that spans from 3.55 GHz to 3.7 GHz, allowing it to operate in tandem with existing Wi-Fi networks.
The CBRS band has several built-in mechanisms to protect users from interference from one another. There are three tiers on the CBRS band: Incumbents, Priority Access License (PAL), and General Availability Access (GAA).
Companies can operate their own CBRS powered private LTE and 5G wireless networks on the GAA tier simply by utilizing cellular wireless access points that register themselves with FCC certified Spectrum Access Service (SAS) systems. The CBRS band gives companies the power to build independent networks and services next to commercial Wi-Fi and public mobile network connectivity options.
CBRS vs. Wi-Fi: How They Both Work
On the CBRS band devices must first obtain permission before broadcasting, even if an organization is operating on a licensed tier. These stricter controls outlined by the FCC are designed to prevent interference and optimize the transmission of each broadcast.
CBRS powered cellular access points (also known as CBSDs) must connect to the SAS to receive permission to broadcast. The SAS is a cloud-based spectrum coordinator that manages the power assignment and spectrum availability for each device. To transmit on the CBRS network, each CBSD must be FCC certified and be able to communicate with the SAS.
Just like Wi-Fi, the CBRS network uses access points, extenders, and antennas to construct radio access networks. Since the private cellular technology enables higher transmit power outdoors and allows for lower data rates for device connectivity, users and devices on a private cellular network are able to stay connected across larger areas with less infrastructure.
Wi-Fi adheres to the IEEE 802.11 standards and operates on the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies, and starting to be used within the 6GHz spectrum. Users can set up hotspots or build Wi-Fi networks without the need for licensing or a network coordinator. This flexibility has allowed Wi-Fi to become ubiquitous among both consumers and businesses.
Unlike CBRS-based networks, there are no built-in protections against interference on Wi-Fi networks. Overlapping Wi-Fi networks can cause interference, degrading the signal quality - against which each Wi-Fi network needs to run its own RF management algorithms to counter and maximize overall performance.
Both CBRS-based networks and Wi-Fi support public and private options for network access. On a Wi-Fi network, a network segment for guest users / devices is created allowing devices to access the internet without being on the same subnet as the corporate network. In a CBRS environment, this is achieved through a neutral host service where MNO subscribers can be given access to private mobile network services based on security and QoS policy.
Neutral hosts pass cellular communications through a private mobile network and hand it off to the nearest carrier for that device. This provides better mobile coverage for such guest users without any manual intervention on their mobile devices.
How Does CBRS Compare to Wi-Fi?
Now that we know the basics of both Wi-Fi and CBRS, let’s see how they are compared to each other on fundamental network services and capabilities.
On a CBRS network, each device uses SIM technology to authenticate and identify itself on the network. This whitelist-only approach provides better security when compared to passwords, as passwords can be shared easily or cracked. For a device to join a private mobile network, it must have the correct SIM information.
CBRS enabled mobile devices and IoT infrastructure can use physical SIM cards or are programmed via eSIM through a simple download. Through the use of centralized encryption that’s always-on, communications on a private mobile network are inherently more private and are not as susceptible to man-in-the-middle or deauthentication attacks. As we all are well aware, open Wi-Fi networks continue to be susceptible to eavesdropping and require a separate active VPN session to encrypt data transfers.
Wi-Fi broadcasts network availability by default, allowing anyone can see different networks in the area if they are in range. This allows for one to identify networks and probe them for weaknesses. Wi-Fi can be secured through strong encryption, network segmentation, and alternative methods, such as certificate based RADIUS authentication.
Private mobile networks on the CBRS band can provide significantly more capacity for connected devices since all traffic is scheduled by the infrastructure - there is no “room wasted” for collisions, neighboring networks, interference and random access backoff algorithms. While Wi-Fi may be easy to implement, it continues to be at the mercy of connected devices to request access to radio resources on specific channels at random intervals, eliminating predictability for airtime resource availability against high device density.
Quality of Service
Quality of Service (QoS) allows businesses to specify which traffic receives priority on a network. This is useful for ensuring priority access for critical applications and allowing them to “go first” when there is congestion in the wireless medium.
In addition to QoS, private mobile networks have service level agreements / objectives for latency, throughput and packet error rate definitions by default. While Wi-Fi enables segmentation of applications and devices in terms of priority access for QoS, it does not allow for granular service level definitions. A CBRS powered Celona network provides more control over traffic through its unique MicroSlicing technology.
Celona MicroSlicing provides granular service level control over what resources are available to certain applications or devices, in addition to QoS prioritization. This allows enterprises to fine-tune their latency and throughput metrics based on their latest generation of digital initiatives across device groups, application mix and network segments.
Wi-Fi can offer latency within the 1-to-10-millisecond range when it is not congested. But during congestion, this latency metric can go as high as 500 milliseconds. In a private cellular network, even at times of congestion, latency metric can predictably stay under 20 milliseconds for 4G LTE and under 10 milliseconds for 5G cellular - improving stability of the overall solution against wide ranging set of device and application mix. This is another reason for private cellular wireless to be better suited for environments that support IoT devices and low-latency applications, such as remote assist or real-time robotics.
Coverage and Mobility
Since private cellular wireless can maintain connectivity for mobile and IoT devices even at low data rates, it offers much wider coverage per access point radio. In comparison, while a cellular device can stay connected at few 10s of Kbps, a Wi-Fi device considers <6Mbps data rate in 5GHz band unacceptable. This improved ability “to hear” low signal devices improves the rate of which private cellular systems can be built and deployed in challenging environments, such as warehouses, manufacturing sites, outdoor venues, etc.
Private LTE and 5G cellular powered by CBRS also benefit from improved handoff. Handoff mobility occurs when a mobile device has been instructed to switch between two cellular access points. Chances are you’ve never noticed your cellphone switch towers while driving: this is thanks to a smooth handover orchestrated by the infrastructure, instead of relying on the mobile device to make the decision to move between radios - as is the case with Wi-Fi.
Both Wi-Fi and CBRS-based networks offer competitive speeds for business applications. Wi-Fi can produce up to 1Gbps speeds depending on the frequency and environment it is broadcasted in. 4G mobile speeds range from 25Mbps to 150Mbps, with 5G offering speeds between 300Mbps to 1Gbps. When it comes to business needs, both technologies are competitive in terms of speed alone, with few users being able to tell the difference between a 5G cellular wireless and Wi-Fi connection.
For outdoor environments, CBRS-based networks (up to 1M sqft per radio) can provide significant cost savings on infrastructure given the very large coverage areas outdoors compared to Wi-Fi (up to 100K sqft per radio). For indoor environments, using Celona’s unique cloud networking solution, on a per sqft basis, price for a private cellular network is comparable to that of a Wi-Fi infrastructure.
Important to note that, businesses who use commercial networks for LTE services must pay carrier fees, which can fluctuate based on usage or the market demand. In a private CBRS environment, businesses use their own infrastructure and can easily control their cost by planning their coverage and capacity needs.
CBRS vs. Wi-Fi: Which Is Right for You?
In short, Wi-Fi offers fast and convenient wireless access to high density of devices and users, while CBRS provides interference-free communication to critical infrastructure within enterprise environments at predictable performance.
Built on top of CBRS powered private mobile networks, Celona’s MicroSlicing technology gives companies greater flexibility and control over the airtime resources, allowing them to meet demanding service level requirements on latency, throughput and packet error rate for such critical applications that are now common across enterprise facilities.
Since the CBRS band uses a separate frequency than Wi-Fi, both can co-exist within the same space. This allows organizations to scale their networks and start using CBRS powered private LTE and 5G cellular for specific devices and applications that demand an express lane of wireless connectivity.
The Celona Solution
Celona partners with enterprise organizations to provide CBRS 5G services as a seamless turnkey 5G LAN solution.
Celona utilizes cloud networking principles to make implementing private mobile networks an out-of-box experience. Onboarding for a Celona 5G LAN can be done alongside existing wireless and IT infrastructure, without interrupting business operations.
Plug-and-play cellular access points from Celona can be quickly deployed throughout the campus, while proactive monitoring within a Celona network ensures network SLAs, such as throughput and latency requirements, are consistently being met for critical applications.
If you’re building your network for the future, Celona can help. Check out our network planner to estimate the size of your private mobile network, or test-drive the Celona 5G LAN solution after applying for a free trial.