5G and Wi-Fi will coexist – as ‘gory detail’ of the tech fades (Federated Wireless on 2022)
When you’re launching a new technology, it’s easy to develop a rooting interest. It’s only human – you devote your passion and energy to this new innovation, and you want people to know it’s better than the alternatives. Meanwhile, people working on alternatives argue their technologies should win the day. This dynamic has played out during the last few years with private wireless and Wi-Fi. Itt’s not a bad thing; a little friendly competition never hurt anyone. But as an industry, we shouldn’t forget the underlying truth: our customers don’t really care.
For enterprise decision-makers, it doesn’t matter what acronym is on the label of the wireless solution they’re deploying. What matters are the applications and capabilities they can tap into in order to grow and optimize their businesses. Whichever technology helps them do that, that’s what they will use. And that’s the big story we see unfolding for private wireless in 2022.
This year, the industry will stop putting so much focus on the technical details of shared-spectrum citizens broadband radio service (CBRS), and shift to what businesses are actually doing with it. We’ll hear less about the exciting implications for private wireless in the future. Instead, we’ll be talking about what it offers right now: a powerful high-performance and highly secure addition to the enterprise connectivity toolbox, and an increasingly viable solution to real-world business problems.
Since part of the wireless spectrum was opened for private networks in 2017, CBRS has emerged as a powerful new option for enterprise connectivity – and in some cases, a compelling alternative to Wi-Fi. In many ways, it offers the best of all wireless worlds. Enterprises get the simplicity of Wi-Fi, with the ability to deploy private networks over spectrum that’s free to use. But they also get the benefits of 5G – increased security, more scalability, improved coverage – without having to involve a mobile network operator.
Competition to coexistence
So, should we assume private wireless will displace Wi-Fi? No. And, believe it or not, that’s a sign the market is maturing. Wi-Fi and private wireless satisfy very different enterprise needs. This year, we expect the marketplace to increasingly come around to the notion that these technologies can and will coexist within enterprises as complementary solutions.
Wi-Fi will continue to be the go-to option for basic enterprise connectivity – computers, smartphones, printers, and other standard business devices. Meanwhile, companies will turn to private wireless when they need the more robust and deterministic capabilities for which it was purpose-built. That includes mission critical scenarios like:
- Industrial automation and robotics;
- Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity;
- High mobility deployments;
- Scalable deployments across large, complex indoor and outdoor coverage areas.
For these and other cases that require more secure, scalable, predictable, and deterministic access, private wireless offers an attractive option. And in 2022, we’ll see more of these scenarios move from tantalizing possibilities to real-world deployments. Last year saw the basic concept of CBRS proven-out in pilots, proofs, and eventually, early commercial deployments. This year, private wireless starts to scale.
Instead of manufacturers testing private wireless in one trial at one factory, for example, we’ll see them deploying it enterprise-wide. The market for private wireless will still be dominated by early adopters leaning into innovation to gain a competitive edge. But these won’t be trials; they’ll be full-scale deployments. And, as forward-looking companies scale up private wireless in 2022, the concrete benefits they realize will set the stage for mass-market adoption in 2023 and 2024.
Blending wireless tech
The growing perception of private wireless and Wi-Fi as complementary technologies isn’t just a sign of the maturity of CBRS-based cellular technologies. It’s also an indicator of even more interesting innovations to come. Because now, we can start to envision applications that draw on both. The latest generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6E, begins to make use of a software control layer to manage wireless connectivity – initially to enable spectrum access while providing incumbent protection, and will expand to include capabilities that help manage the quality of Wi-Fi connections.
Shared-spectrum CBRS networks use similar cloud management intelligence to allocate spectrum resources. Why is this a big deal? Because now, we can envision bridging private 5G and Wi-Fi together to create a “network of networks” for converged applications. What makes it even more interesting is that CBRS (3.5GHz) and Wi-Fi 6E (6 GHz) will be followed by other spectrum bands that enterprises can leverage.
The first use cases of private 5G and Wi-Fi 6E will both focus on augmenting existing Wi-Fi setups to turn on advanced wireless use cases like HD video analytics, automated mobile robotics, and augmented reality solutions. But as more spectrum bands become available, enterprises will have even more options for powering new devices and applications with connectivity optimized according to what is important to the use case in terms of performance, reliability, security, cost, energy efficiency and other metrics
Scaling private wireless
If we project the convergence and automation trends unfolding in 2022 even farther down the road, we see the same dynamic playing out. The gory details of different technologies and architectures will become less relevant and more abstract. And businesses will be able to focus more on what they want to do with wireless connectivity, rather than how it works.
Eventually, we’ll see marketplaces similar to what public cloud providers offer customers today, with catalogs of solutions for different use cases that have private wireless baked in. For example, if you’re looking to connect robots in a manufacturing plant, you’ll procure the ‘Robotic Automation’ package on a provider’s marketplace. It will come with the application, infrastructure, compute, wireless connectivity, and everything else you need to deploy that use case, prepackaged and ready to consume.
Competition brings out the best, and that is as true in the wireless space as any other. When new innovations like CBRS go up against established technologies like Wi-Fi, the whole industry benefits. But it’s a sure sign we’ve reached a new stage in the growth of private wireless that the conversation is starting to shift.
As you hear more companies talk about private wireless in 2022, pay attention to what they’re saying. Is the conversation moving away from debating technical specs, and towards solving real-world business problems? Then you can bet mass-market adoption is right around the corner.