As an industry analyst that covers all things related to network connectivity, I have a unique perspective—I spend a lot of time with enterprise networking companies as well as operators, service providers, and telecommunication infrastructure firms. Each makes a compelling argument for why their solutions are best suited for any given deployment. Lately, though, tier one wireless carriers in the United States have been crowing that next generation 5G deployments will render Wi-Fi obsolete. It’s understandable, given the billions of dollars they are investing in both fixed and mobile 5G networks, but such predictions aren’t realistic. In this column, I will dive deeper into the underlying technologies behind both 5G and Wi-Fi and the efforts from some of the larger enterprise networking providers. I hope to explain why I believe co-existence is a more probable long-term scenario.
Cisco Systems was front and center at the latest Mobile World Congress (MWC19) event held last month in Barcelona. I spent time with executives at the show and was impressed by the networking giant’s 5GNOW initiative. At a high level, Cisco acknowledges the convergence of the enterprise and service provider markets (you can read more on this topic in my MWC19 article here). What I like about 5GNOW is that it is aimed at helping operators identify new services to monetize, reducing costs from an operations and capital expenditure perspective, and establishing improved security postures to safeguard subscribers. In our current LTE world, many operators worldwide have been locked out by the Over-The-Top (OTT) apps such as streaming services and multi-use platforms like Tencent’s WeChat in China. Both AT&T and Verizon are on the record stating that their 5G investments are each north of $20B. That return on investment won’t come solely on the heels of consumer unlimited data plans (which I call a “dumb pipe” approach). I believe SD-WAN is also a huge revenue opportunity for operators, and Cisco is well-positioned with a flexible offering. The portfolio spans from Meraki for “lean IT” organizations, to Viptela, which offers support for customization and is ideally suited for more complex network topologies. Furthermore, Meraki integrates LTE in some of its small branch security and SD-WAN appliances for fail-over, and partners with operators globally.
Prior to MWC19, I had the opportunity to speak to one of HPE Aruba’slead engineers, who has considerable experience on both the enterprise networking and mobile broadband (MBB) sides of the fence, from both a certification and deployment perspective. My takeaway is that it comes down to three vectors: economics, propagation, and scale. From an economics perspective, today’s LTE and tomorrow’s 5G are inherently more expensive than Wi-Fi to integrate into devices. Furthermore, the licensed spectrum aspect of MBB typically equates to a monthly charge per device (although private LTE networks are gaining momentum and will likely grow with the OnGo/CBRS initiative). Second, propagation: today’s MBB has major challenges traveling through walls and objects vs Wi-Fi. At MWC19, I observed companies like Huawei attempting to solve this challenge, but the effort is still nascent. Lastly, when it comes to scale, Wi-Fi takes the cake—its footprint in organizations large and small is unrivaled. Aruba is among a handful of providers that have launched devices certified by the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, which boasts improvements in latency and coverage.
Extreme Networks has undergone a reinvention of sorts, starting with its 2017 acquisitions of key networking assets from Avaya, Zebra Technologies, and Brocade. These deals shored up its roadmap gaps in Wi-Fi, data center, and security. Despite the dominance of Cisco and Aruba, Extreme found a niche in venue deployment and boasts significant presence in the NFL. Such deployments are also an excellent demonstration of how Wi-Fi and LTE complement each other. I had the opportunity to visit CenturyLink Field and witness firsthand the Seattle Seahawks and Sounders FC fan connectivity experience. If you’re interested, you can find that article here.
Following MWC19, I had an opportunity to speak to an Extreme executive on the hotly debated 5G vs Wi-Fi topic. Extreme also subscribes to the notion that both connectivity technologies will exist together into the foreseeable future. One of the company’s announcements at the show was focused on 5G subscriber analytics and closed-loop automation tied to the ExtremeAnalytics, Network Packet Broker, and Workflow Composer applications. The company’s objective is to predict potential impacts to network performance and deploy remediation to ensure the best connectivity experience possible. Based on its multi-domain efforts, it’s quite evident that Extreme believes in the viability of both 5G and Wi-Fi.
5G and Wi-Fi aren’t in a grudge match; use cases will drive a blend of both connectivity options. Mobile 5G is certainly a game changer with its ultra-low latency, and it will birth a new set of applications in manufacturing, healthcare, smart cities, automotive, and more. However, Wi-Fi will also continue to evolve, providing a highly scalable, cost-effective networking solution. Some might argue that the companies in this article are embracing 5G to ensure their survival. I believe, though, that they each understand the convergence of local/wide area/wireless and mobile broadband networking. Furthermore, they understand the value of delivering a seamless experience for their users. 5G and Wi-Fi are better together!