Is enterprise-grade Wi-Fi secure and predictable enough for your organization’s needs? We’ll help you figure out and if you should look into alternatives.
What is an enterprise Wi-Fi network? Enterprise Wi-Fi is a wireless network of access points that allows for greater user capacity than consumer Wi-Fi, as well as advanced security and sophisticated management through additional infrastructure such as a wireless controller. It also creates efficient communication for large corporations over a vast physical area without lost connections or dead zones.
Many of us connect our phones and tablets to the nearest available Wi-Fi without much thought. But behind the scenes, a robust combination of hardware and software is at work making it all happen. However, not all Wi-Fi is created equal.
Enterprise Wi-Fi vs Home Wi-Fi: What’s the Difference?
Most of us are familiar with connecting our devices to Wi-Fi at home, or maybe at our favorite coffee shops, but what makes enterprise Wi-Fi so different?
Enterprise Wi-Fi is far more sophisticated than a simple home network, which consists of a single AP, or perhaps 2-3 of them. An enterprise Wi-Fi network is capable of connecting a host of APs together and can even connect multiple campuses to one another to provide consistent enterprise mobility. This ensures no matter where a user is, they’re able to access not only the internet but also the corporate network. Home Wi-Fi simply cannot provide that level of sophistication, security, and wide-area access.
The physical access points (APs) found in enterprises often offer significantly better coverage and management options than those found in consumer-grade units, but more importantly, these APs are managed together as a single network.
For example, enterprise Wi-Fi allows administrators to manage dozens of APs through a single wireless controller. In the event an access point fails, a saved configuration file can be applied to a new access point to replace it in mere minutes, thus enabling a user to continue to access the corporate networks easily.
From a security perspective, home Wi-Fi doesn’t offer much more than a password. Enterprise Wi-Fi often features advanced security measures such as rogue access point detection, MAC address filtering, and multiple user and device level authentication methods tied to enterprise corporate policies and network access rules. Enterprise wireless is built to be consistent and widely available across multiple locations. Home Wi-Fi is designed to serve a single consumer household.
How Does Enterprise Wi-Fi Work?
Almost all enterprise wireless networks are built around an on-premises and/or cloud-hosted network operations and management system, including a wireless controller that provides the option to locally terminate Wi-Fi client user traffic at a centralized location instead of bridging traffic flows within the IP domains that support the access points within the access layer.
These access points can be configured as a mesh network in certain parts of the enterprise facility to strategically cover indoor areas where there are no cabling, or outdoor locations where it is impractical to pull Ethernet or fiber wiring. While it’s true enterprise Wi-Fi can cover a large area, ensuring there are no dead zones can require considerably more hardware than initially planned.
To avoid lapses in coverage, a site survey will need to be conducted in order to optimally place access points throughout the coverage zone. Thick walls, neighboring signals, and large metal obstructions can all require more hardware to provide a strong Wi-Fi signal to end-users. Site surveys result in heat maps, which identify where there might be competing signals and additional sources of interference in the area that will impact the network’s performance.
Once the APs are in place, they are usually centrally managed where the management / operations plane dictates everything from when Wi-Fi is turned on, to what or who is allowed to connect. When implemented properly, enterprise wireless can be secure and easily managed.
How is Enterprise Wi-Fi Managed?
The wireless network can be configured and secured using many different types of authentication, one of the most popular being RADIUS, or Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service. RADIUS allows admins to enforce authentication through credentials that are unique to a specific device or user. While this helps cut down on password sharing, it certainly isn’t foolproof.
RADIUS can also sync with your Active Directory Server using LDAP, meaning that staff can use the same credentials they use to log in to their PCs, as they do to connect to the enterprise Wi-Fi. While this is a great way to protect your wireless, it still leaves the door open for hackers if LDAP or RADIUS isn’t configured correctly.
While Wi-Fi is unquestionably one of the most popular and productive methods for businesses to share information, there are some instances where it faces challenges, such as outdoors, for mobile devices in cars or other vehicles, and in applications that require deterministic connectivity. There is some new emerging technology that is helping meet these needs while cutting infrastructure costs and simultaneously simplifying security.
This new method of communication is called private cellular with 4G LTE and 5G connectivity options, and it has benefits that, in some cases, make it more appropriate than enterprise Wi-Fi.
What Exactly is a Private LTE / 5G Network?
You can think of private LTE / 5G as your own cellular network that you control. Instead of a massive public network of cell towers covering dozens of miles, your private network can serve a single warehouse, span across a campus, or connect multiple satellite facilities. This can be done entirely without having to rely on third-party cellular carriers or their infrastructure.
Recently the FCC has opened up 150MHz of shared space for companies to deploy their own private cellular networks. This is known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service or CBRS based LTE / 5G, and is one of the most compelling advancements to challenge traditional Wi-Fi.
Businesses lease their own reserved space across the CBRS spectrum through open auctions hosted by the FCC. Bids can be placed for Priority Access Licenses or PALs that are awarded on a county-by-county basis. License terms are for ten years and can be renewed for multiple terms.
Private space on the spectrum helps reduce common problems such as signal congestion and opens up the opportunity for enterprises to build communication systems that span across towns, cities, and even the country.
Private cellular was born to solve some of the common reliability, security, and speed issues that some enterprise wireless networks experience in specific circumstances. Ports, outdoor campuses, manufacturing plants, and warehouses are a few examples where private LTE would work well to complement existing Wi-Fi networks.
Effectively planning for a private LTE network takes some careful consideration but requires no more effort than installing enterprise Wi-Fi.
Private Cellular vs. Enterprise Wi-Fi?
Enterprise Wi-Fi will continue to serve as a significant connectivity solution, but for those instances where Wi-Fi alone can restrict the availability, scalability, and predictability on networks, private LTE or 5G is a good alternative. Let’s examine some key areas where private cellular networks outperform enterprise Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi broadcasts openly across the spectrum, making it a tempting target for hackers or curious passersby. Weak or outdated authentication protocols can leave entire wireless networks vulnerable to breaches, while password sharing can quickly blur the line between the guest and corporate network. Even properly secured wireless networks are vulnerable to a myriad of evolving attacks. MAC address spoofing can hijack the address of whitelisted devices, hidden SSIDs can easily be uncovered with network sniffing software, etc.
Private cellular operates on a very different authentication model using SIM cards to gain access to the network. Each SIM card requires programming to be allowed to connect to the private network. This method of device level authorization and always-on data encryption for control and data traffic flows over the air is considerably more robust and secure.
When just a few minutes of downtime costs tens of thousands of dollars, you won’t want to rely on just Wi-Fi for predictable wireless coverage. Your mission-critical infrastructure might need a more robust and resilient network from which to operate.
Unlike private cellular, Wi-Fi operates on the 2.5 and 5 GHz bands in an unlicensed spectrum. This means there’s nothing stopping new neighbors or guest devices from creating interference for your wireless connectivity.
Since Wi-Fi wasn’t built with mission-critical infrastructure in mind, there is no protocol to smoothly transition a device from one access point to another. As a device moves through a Wi-Fi coverage zone, its connection quality can diminish dramatically or drop completely before being picked up again.
When using a cellular network you have even more control over how the cellular network prioritizes certain types of traffic. This built-in Quality of Service (QoS) allows for the prioritization but also for throughput, jitter, latency and packet error rate specific service level agreements (SLA).
A series of private cell stations can cover four times the space as enterprise Wi-Fi indoors, and up to ten times outdoors. Unlike enterprise Wi-Fi, LTE was built with large enterprise networks in mind, meaning each cell station is designed to cover significantly more area than a single Wi-Fi access point. This additional power works hand in hand with cellular wireless capability to manage device mobility across multiple radios - and aids in handing off a device's connection from one node to another, creating a seamless transition as a device moves throughout the network.
Utilizing LTE services solves another problem while trying to ensure reliable coverage - by operating on a private 3.5 GHz band that is separate from public Wi-Fi signals.
What Industries Benefit The Most From Private LTE?
There are a few key industries where building an enterprise cellular network offer unmatched reliability, speed, and control for mission-critical applications.
Higher education is built on large libraries, lecture halls, laboratories, lunch halls, classrooms, and dormitories that serve large numbers of tech-savvy students on more laptops and mobile devices than ever before. This same blanket coverage can easily be segmented to allow a completely private end of the network to be used by research lab, physical safety and other facilities infrastructure.
When lives are on the line, outages simply cannot happen. Private cellular allows for low latency and predictable SLA-based data transfer for medical professionals on their critical connected infrastructure. A private mobile network network can be deployed right next to existing Wi-Fi networks, allowing patients and BYOD devices use Wi-Fi without interfering with mission critical applications.
Private LTE is ideal for large-scale manufacturing operations that need reliable coverage and uptime across large distances. Private LTE / 5G wireless coverage on the CBRS spectrum can provide blanket coverage across multiple warehouses and assembly lines.
Farms that incorporate hundreds of acres can stay connected through long-range cellular systems, allowing innovation in rural environments. Private cellular connectivity allows greenhouses to communicate key information such as soil acidity, airflow, temperature, and humidity. Private LTE / 5G wireless give farmers access to real-time information about their crops across very large areas, helping them plan their next harvest and increase their yields.
Whether it’s oil, gas, or wind energy, all sides of the industry need reliable connectivity over large areas of land. Implementing Wi-Fi mesh and Wi-Fi point-to-point links (also known as Wi-Fi bridges) across outdoor sites would simply be ineffective. With strategically placed cellular 4G / 5G base stations, equipment located in even the most remote areas can effectively communicate back critical information back to technicians or analysts.
Buses, trolleys, ferries, shuttles, trains, and other public transit vehicles often travel in consistent circuits that rarely have consistent connectivity. This poses a problem for radio communications, especially for maintenance vehicles, field command vehicles, and IoT devices. Cellular signals can switch towers seamlessly as they move across an area, where Wi-Fi signals may drop or get stuck to an access point that is no longer in range. Private cellular connectivity has also been designed to provide longer ranges and wider coverage to keep field crew and devices connected.
Malls, amusement parks, and shopping centers all need to provide private and public network access to service staff and guests. Private 4G LTE and 5G wireless can easily cover these large distances and help segment secure cellular connections to mission critical infrastructure within public venues and for retailer - for instance, video surveillance cameras, computer vision sensors, connected speaker systems, security check-in stations, mobile point-of-sale devices, push-to-talk handsets and more.
The Celona Solution
Celona offers the only 5G LAN solution for enterprise networks. It enables organizations to maintain full control over their data as they utilize their existing IT infrastructure to integrate with a private mobile network. A combination of cloud-managed hardware and software allows for a plug-and-play deployment at scale, across many sites within the enterprise. On the backend, the Celona Orchestrator utilizes artificial intelligence to manage cellular resources and works proactively to ensure that capacity and coverage demands are being met. Metrics such as latency, packet error rate, and throughput are continuously measured on a per device group and per application basis, and are optimized to provide the best possible service.
Is a Celona 5G LAN right for you?
If you’re looking to move beyond enterprise Wi-Fi, it might be time to look into a Celoan network. You can see what it would look like in your environment with our network planner. And to stay in touch with Celona news monthly, subscribe to our newsletter below.