When No Jitter asked me to do an end-of-year piece on wireless, 5G was my obvious choice for a topic. However, as I have noted in the past
, for enterprise users, 5G hasn’t delivered anything more than a somewhat faster version of the basic mobile broadband service they have had since early in this century.
What attracted my attention was one of the big (and as yet undelivered) promises of 5G: private 5G networks for the enterprise. These private networks would use over-the-air cellular technology (5G new radio [NR] or the earlier LTE cellular technology) and operate on licensed radio channels. The licensed channels became available with the release of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in 2017, and since these private 5G networks would be using cellular radio standards, end devices could include smartphones, cellular-equipped laptops and tablets, and possibly Internet of Things (IoT) devices. One could even envision private 5G networks specifically designed for IoT and Industry 4.0 initiatives
I recall introducing our Enterprise Connect audience to the idea of private 5G at our most recent (and hopefully not our “last”) in-person event in 2019. I did a show-of-hands poll of our fairly large audience of enterprise buyers and found virtually zero interest in pursuing the private 5G vision. You have to understand, virtually all of these buyers’ organizations had invested millions of dollars over the years in equipping all of their facilities with highly effective Wi-Fi networks and had received accolades across the organization for delivering mobile wireless connectivity for all manner of devices, including smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Buyers immediately asked the obvious question: If I already have private local wireless that meets my users’ demands for mobile connectivity, what do I need a private 5G network for? We’re still waiting for an answer on that one.
So, the end of the year is a good time to ask: What it’s going to take to move private 5G out of the starting blocks?
What Value Does Private 5G Deliver?
The first problem with private 5G is defining a value proposition that makes sense to enterprises. After considerable research and sitting through countless vendor and analyst presentations, here is what I’ve come up with for the potential business benefits of private 5G.
● Private Networks on Licensed Spectrum: Enterprises can finally build private wireless networks using licensed radio channels that virtually eliminate any possibility of interference from other networks and guarantees service availability to their users. Up until now, private wireless networks, including Wi-Fi networks, have had to operate on unlicensed frequency bands that are a “free-for-all.” Early on, this was a major problem in Wi-Fi 1 (i.e., 802.11b) when we had only three channels that everyone in your multi-tenant office building was sharing. The interference for that sharing degraded everyone’s performance. With the addition of the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands (and the help of Wi-Fi’s limited transmission range), that problem has largely disappeared, significantly lessening the advantage of a licensed spectrum alternative.
● Greater Transmission Range: If you need to cover a large outdoor area, private 5G has a clear advantage. The power levels allowed in CBRS provide for greater range, which translates into the need for far fewer base stations. Importantly, the user devices can also support that extended range.
● Device Availability: As private 5G networks utilize over-the-air cellular technology, any cellular device that supports the CBRS frequencies (i.e. Band 48) and has a compatible subscriber identification module (SIM) can play. As Band 48 support is becoming universal, that gives us a wide selection of devices, but still not nearly as wide as Wi-Fi. Bottom line, adding cellular capability to a device adds cost, and most people opt for the Wi-Fi only model if they don’t specifically need cellular capability.
● Cellular Security:
Security is always an issue in cellular because the cellcos got burned badly with cloned 1G cell phones and have been focused on all aspects of security ever since. Despite what you may have read, enterprise Wi-Fi networks have pretty much caught up on the security front. While security is often portrayed as an unmet need to be served by private 5G, the security “advantage” is pretty much a sham; they must think we’re still using that WEP security
. Starting in March 2006, all Wi-Fi certified devices were required to support WPA2, which calls for CCMP
AES-based encryption. In short, the current level of Wi-Fi security is acceptable in all but a very small number of organizations.
● More Efficient Use of Spectrum: The cellular standards are also designed to be far more efficient than Wi-Fi, and again the reason is money. The cellcos have invested billions of dollars in licensed radio channels, they have a strong incentive to optimize that investment.
A key feature of the cellular standards is that they essentially eliminate collisions; Wi-Fi, like Ethernet, uses contention-based access, so collisions are a given and collisions decrease throughput. In cellular, the base station tightly controls transmissions from all users eliminating collisions. All of this comes at the cost of the complexity needed to manage transmit power levels, engage seamless handoffs, and a host of other challenges introduced by the need to cover wide areas and massive numbers of users. So all of that in-house Wi-Fi knowledge you’ve accumulated is virtually useless in troubleshooting cellular systems.
● New Wireless Capabilities:
Here’s where things get tricky because they’ve scarcely delivered any service to date
. However, the private 5G industry is talking about allowing users with private networks to utilize new traffic management capabilities in the 5G protocols to deliver prioritized services with guaranteed performance levels, particularly with regard to latency or the time it takes a message to travel over the wireless link. The 5G standards define a new service, Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), that could offer latencies as low as 1 msec; current public 5G services offer latencies in the 20- 30 msec range.
The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is just finishing the URLLC specifications. There are currently no URLLC deployments anywhere in the world, but the 5G planners seem to feel there is a need for this, particularly in manufacturing environments. I can find no reason to believe that is true, and even if it is, we can still get lower latencies over a cable connection. So, why do we need mobility here, too?
In the end, we seem to have a rather shaky business case. While great business empires have been built out of much less, it should be clear from the outset, this in not going to be anything close to a slam dunk.
Swimming in Denial
Two things in particular have struck me about the sales pitch for private 5G:
- Proponents are big on unfounded speculation regarding unmet market needs (e.g. better security, very low latency wireless connectivity, etc.)
- Proponents then fail to acknowledge the fact that there is a phenomenally strong and well-entrenched incumbent in Wi-Fi. Enterprise users also know, trust, and have learned how to use Wi-Fi effectively, and will probably need a really big advantage to start looking at something else; that is, much bigger than what we’ve listed above.
While the idea of simply ignoring a sizable, capable and well-entrenched competitor might seem mind boggling, this is the carrier community that brought us such wonderful success as ISDN (lost out to VoIP), SMDS (lost out to frame relay), ATM (lost out to IP and Ethernet), DSL (lost out to cable modems), and the list goes on. So, let’s size up private 5G.
What’s Standing in the Way of Private 5G
Technical curiosities and unfounded speculation are good for term papers, but not much use to real businesses spending real money. Looking at private 5G from a business standpoint, here is a list of major obstacles we can immediately identify that private 5G will have to overcome in order to be successful.
● It’s a Limited Capacity Solution:
The first obvious reality about private 5G is we don’t have a lot of capacity to play with. The entire CBRS band that will be shared by all private 5G (and possibly other) users in an area has only 150 MHz of radio spectrum. For comparison, the latest Wi-Fi 6 standards define channel sizes for Wi-Fi networks ranging from 20 MHz to 160 MHz. That means we can have a single Wi-Fi network that has more capacity than the entire CBRS band. What’s more, with the addition of the 6 GHz spectrum for Wi-Fi (what we call Wi-Fi 6e), Wi-Fi now has lots of those 160 MHz channels available.
Unless something changes, private 5G will have to focus on smaller, more specialized markets where the potential advantages listed above may have value.
● Wi-Fi Also Has a Lot Broader Ecosystem: The basic thing to remember in wireless today is, “Everything connects to Wi-Fi.” While devices like smartphones and some laptops and tablets support both, there are lots more devices that have Wi-Fi but no cellular capability, and that number is growing every day. The entire consumer IoT market from Nest thermostats to Ring doorbells, Amazon Echoes, and the rest all run on Wi-Fi.
While we do have cellular modems from companies like Cradlepoint
and Sierra Wireless
to connect almost any device to cellular, that’s another cost. Wi-Fi capability also allows professional users to roam from the office Wi-Fi network to their home Wi-Fi.
● Lots of People Know How To Make Wi-Fi Work: A key part of the Wi-Fi ecosystem is the base of channel partners who know how to deploy it in challenging indoor environments and maintain it once it’s there. By the way, it took years to develop that base of expertise, so you might want to factor that into your timetable.
● Need 5G Base Stations Designed for Enterprise Networks: In shopping for enterprise Wi-Fi we have lots of good choices from enterprise focused companies like Cisco and HPE. Some private 5G vendors like Celona make their own base stations (i.e. “access points”), but most of the reports (and complaints) we’re seeing from the private 5G field trials indicate that they are trying to deploy private 5G using equipment designed for carrier networks. Having worked in both environments, I can assure you, this is not a path you want to go down unless you’re prepared to spend a whole lot on training.
● Private 5G Has To Fit In the Environment:
Enterprise IT departments need solutions they can deal with, along with the myriad other systems, services, and networks they are responsible for. Reports for early adopters
indicate that the carriers have major gaps in their understanding of how enterprise IT departments work; in reality, the cellcos’ have more enterprise contacts in the purchasing department than in IT or anyone else who might be buying a private 5G network.
Potential Winning Scenarios
While I don’t mean to discourage anyone from taking on the private 5G challenge, the adventuresome should know at the outset that they’re climbing a steep hill. The private 5G challenge is even tougher because you will have to build the entire ecosystem. The Wi-Fi Alliance
was able to do that -- however, when Wi-Fi first appeared in the 1990s, it was in response to a real unmet need. That’s not the case here.
However, I can foresee some possible winning scenarios.
● Hitch a Ride on Wi-Fi: The easiest road to enterprise would be to talk one of the big enterprise Wi-Fi vendors into incorporating a private 5G capability into their existing Wi-Fi access points. In other words, just adopt the 5G radio link for devices that need it, and get that traffic onto the customer’s existing wired infrastructure. I’m sure the Wi-Fi vendors are mulling over this opportunity, and it will be interesting to see if they bite. They do have some expertise in this market after all.
● Solve The DAS Problem For 5G:
In an earlier piece
, I talked about an idea I first heard about from private 5G maker Celona, which was the possibility of using a private 5G/LTE network as a type of distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve indoor coverage for the public cellular carriers. While this idea doesn’t seem to produce any obvious synergies, it certainly addresses an unmet need for better indoor voice coverage.
● Identify Niches Where Cellular Advantages Have Meaning:
This seems to be where most of the trial activity has been, particular in industries that require covering extensive outdoor areas like airports and shipping terminals. The problem with this is the cellular business is a big revenue business and you’d need a lot of these niches to add up to a sizable enough market to make an impact.
Any time I think what we’re trying is flat out impossible, I remember the time I met Rob Carter, EVP and CIO of FedEx in the speaker’s lounge at some industry event. While somewhat humble about his accomplishments, this is the guy who headed up the project to develop and deploy his company’s COSMOS wireless package tracking system. I was working in wireless by 1986 when it introduced the first SuperTracker handheld barcode scanner, and it flat out blew our minds.
To pull that job off at that point in time, they had to develop the terminals along with the back office systems then shop around for a hodge-podge of low capacity wireless data services (we’re talking about ARDIS
and cellular CDPD services
delivering round 4800 bps) – in short, nuts crazy ahead of its time. But they pushed ahead because they had the vision to see the impact this capability could have on their business, and this self-effacing Florida Gator led the charge.
We can still do great things in this business, but accomplishing great things often involves both creativity and great effort. I’m looking forward to what 2022 holds for private 5G and for the wireless industry at large.