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The Cellular Industry Continues to Disappoint in the Enterprise
As we close out 2022, the wireless industry in the U.S. is still dominated by two technology ecosystems, Wi-Fi and cellular. For now, Wi-Fi dominates in the indoor arena, and cellular is the only real option available for wide area mobility. Along with these two dominant ecosystems we have any number of smaller specialized markets, some of which (like low-earth orbit satellite internet) appear to be ready to break into the big time.
Overall, the wireless industry has continued to thrive through 2022, fueled by a combination of better devices, new applications, ongoing technology developments, greater spectrum availability, and consumers’ unrelenting addiction to the wireless lifestyle. However, if there is one critical part of the mobile industry that continues to underperform when it comes to serving the enterprise, it’s the $200 billion U.S. cellular industry.
Along with the rest of our readers, I have listened to, and dutifully reported on, the cellular industry’s promises regarding new 5G-based services specifically geared for the needs of the enterprise. Those promises include services that would specifically dedicate slices of the radio network capacity to offer enterprises premium services (i.e., better performance guarantees), services with very low network latency for real time applications, and support for large-scale internet of things (IoT) applications. To date, none of that stuff has been delivered or even scheduled.
While all three major carriers boast nationwide 5G coverage, that rollout is universally “basic 5G” (i.e., 5G New Radio or NR), which addresses the core consumer demand for faster broadband access. Yes, enterprise users can benefit from as well, but the basic 5G is essentially sprucing up their existing broadband data service; there’s nothing much “new” in that.
In our field, talk is cheap. It’s about time for an objective, no-holds-barred assessment of how well the carriers have done in delivering for enterprise buyers. Beyond that, we will also take a look at how the carriers' performance impacts the functionality enterprise IT can deliver to users, and what form the cellular network will need to take to actually help mobility for the environment enterprises operate in today.
Where the Cellular Industry Has Settled Now
The U.S. cellular industry has arranged itself into three roughly equal-size service providers, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, who continue to spend heavily to convince us that there is some difference among the three virtually identical wireless services portfolios they offer. Probably the best thing I can say is that they at least no one did anything phenomenally stupid like diversify into totally unrelated fields as AT&T and Verizon did, losing billions over the past decade.
If you monitor the carriers’ advertising, you might note that my opinion of their performance differs somewhat from their own. I wish I could share the carriers’ ebullience, but when it comes to delivering for enterprise buyers, these cowboys have all been “All hat, and no cattle.”
Give the operators credit for rolling out 5G new radio technology, but let’s not forget, what they are delivering is now a radically diminished version of what they originally promised us for 5G. When you get right down to it, the only “new” 5G thing the carriers have delivered is a somewhat faster data rate on their existing best effort mobile broadband data service.
That improvement has come partly from the 5G radio technology, but primarily from the introduction of more spectrum, which means bigger radio channels particularly in the mid-band and millimeter wave bands.
The key thing to note is that all of the capabilities that vanished from the 5G vision were all the ones targeted for the enterprise. Those would include network slicing (i.e., the ability to allocate a guaranteed portion for the network resources to selected users), massive machine-to-machine communications for IoT (MM2MC), and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) services with network latency as low as 1 msec.
We Said That Would Be in 5G? You're Remembering Wrong – We Meant 6G
At this point, the carriers haven’t delivered on any of those promises for 5G, but not to worry, they are now adjusting the marketing message. While actual URLLC services remain in the misty future, the carriers are now touting how their 5G mobile broadband provides lower latencies than their previous LTE-based data service! That 5G latency is still in the 20- to 40 msecs range, not the sub-10 msec. performance they had promised, but who’s counting? The carrier marketing strategy appears to be "Move the goalposts and call it a touchdown."
It turns out that delivering those meaningful enhancements involves not just upgrading to 5G radios, but a major upgrade to the core network to what is called 5G Standalone (5G SA). Timeframe? Those upgrades are only now getting underway. Not to worry, however, the cellular industry is now redefining those enhanced 5G services as “6G,” so they can promise them yet again, presumably to an audience that won't remember the previous set of promises.
Is There Anything in 5G For Enterprises (Except Frustration)?
Sure, enterprise users can benefit from a higher speed 5G data service when they are out of Wi-Fi range and make use of those same marvelous consumer capabilities we all enjoy. The same can be said of the carriers’ fixed wireless services for small locations and work-from-home, though wired connections will continue to be the preferred choice, if we can get them.
However, that’s just basic internet connectivity. When it comes to wireless network services, businesses need more than the type of simple person-to-person voice calling cellular provides; the cellular industry has struggled with that reality since the outset. Business users now depend on multifunction unified communications and team collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex to conduct business. Some of those basic communications functions are even migrating into line of business systems.
When we look for ways to better integrate cellular services with the types of tightly-coupled, multifunction communication/collaboration and contact center platforms businesses depend on today, we realize the carriers really have nothing to help with that.
As a result, enterprises are left to depend on over-the-top (OTT) solutions. Those include applications from UC/TC platform vendors — i.e., laborious work arounds — that bypass the cellular voice and SMS text capabilities and simply make use of the cellular data service like “wide area Wi-Fi.” While that does provide a somewhat minimalist solution, as my fellow No Jitter contributor Dave Michels pointed out in a recent piece, mobile users have found that they really can’t depend on a best-effort wireless data service to provide consistency and reliability when they are making a video presentation to a customer.
The obvious solution to the problem of how to integrate cellular services with multifunctional collaboration platforms … would be for the carriers to actually offer a broadband data service with quality of service (QoS) capabilities where we can mark high priority voice and data packets so they get expedited service through the network; ideally, that service would include a meaningful performance guarantee from the provider. This is a solution we have utilized for decades in wired networks the days of frame relay service through MPLS.
The capacity of wired networks has now grown to the point that QoS is becoming irrelevant, but the one remaining capacity-constrained network where we really could use QoS, cellular data, doesn’t support any mechanism for it.
If you're a fan of irony, the cellular core networks are fully capable of providing QoS, because that’s how they ensure the quality of their VoLTE public cellular voice calls; the carriers are just starting to test voice over 5G. So, they utilize QoS internally because they know it’s important for maintaining voice quality, they just don’t sell QoS enabled services to the business customers who might want them.
Irony aside, here’s where the real limitations of those OTT mobile apps come in. Those apps typically cannot directly access the cellular voice calling or SMS texting features in the mobile device, so they can only place UC/TC VoIP voice calls over those questionable best effort cellular data services. In the meantime, an actual ‘cellular voice call’ would give the user the carriers’ guaranteed call quality, but “you can’t get there from here.”
Both Microsoft with its Operator Connect Mobile and Cisco with Webex Go are working on creative ways to make that happen, and we plan to have them on our 5G panel at Enterprise Connect next March to update us on their progress. Hopefully, these initiatives won’t turn into yet another laborious workaround.
What Enterprises Actually Need From The Cellular Industry
With its total focus on the consumer market, what the cellular industry has failed to recognize is that there are two valuable commodities involved: phone calls and information about those calls. The industry does a good job at the first, but completely fails to capitalize on the value of the second.
If our contact center or UC/TC platform knew if an incoming call was originating from a cell phone, then the operators could assess whether sending an SMS text response is the best option. In the current state, we’d still need a communications platform as a service (CPaaS) workaround to send that SMS --but that's the kind of capability that opens new service possibilities. Avaya touted a version of that a few years back, but the idea never caught on.
If the UC/TC platform is placing a call to a cellular device (even if the caller isn’t aware of that), maybe we could activate wideband voice; there are still some compatibility problems in that, but fixable ones. These are obvious example, and I can only imagine what really creative people (i.e., developers) could come up with once they got their heads around it.
There is no way to deliver that type of service integration through the cellular network today, because the only subscriber connection supported is a cell phone. No APIs, no SIP signaling, just send and end buttons. Frankly, working with the cellular networks today is like trying to connect a computer to a rock.
If the carriers would like to stop listening to themselves and start doing something that would lead to meaningful change for enterprise customers, here's the to-do list:
- Add QoS capabilities in the mobile data service: With QoS, the cellular data service would be less of a crap shoot for our video meetings, and our OTT apps can handle the required packet marking. Enterprises could also use that for voice calls. This is the most obvious quick fix.
- Open The Network: There is no way forward if you can only connect cell phones, so the first step would be support for trunk connection from our UC/TC platforms to the cellular network are needed to better integrate the two worlds. Think of it, did we ever have a PBX or a contact center with no trunks?
- Tap the Intelligence: This calls for smarter, more functional signaling to drive more functional services over those trunk connections. If you are going to offer enhanced capabilities, the customers need a way to request them, that is, a signaling protocol. In the VoIP world, SIP is the most obvious choice, and it has the flexibility to accommodate the types of integrated services we’ve been looking for.
- Rationalize SMS: Speaking of SMS, there has to be a better way to integrate that essential ubiquitous text service than going through Twilio or another CPaaS provider. That’s just another opportunity missed for the cellcos.
On top of that, I would stress the importance of treating enterprise customers like the professionals they are, not teenagers shopping for the best discount deal on the new iPhone.
So, Who's The Problem?
The painful reality is that the cellular carriers are utilities and utilities are ruled by their engineers. Cellular engineers are totally dedicated to building the best public consumer wireless communication service — period. The engineers march to the beat of the 3GPP, the cellular infrastructure providers (primarily Ericsson and Nokia), and those they see as their competitors, the other cellular providers. If this industry suffered from a mild form of this disease we could call it “inwardly focused”, however the carriers’ infection is so extreme and ingrained we’d have to call it “totally detached.”
You see, adding a new type of connection like a shared trunk with enhanced signaling to the cellular infrastructure is a major thing; the security implications alone are enough to keep engineers up at night. Management at the carriers and their infrastructure providers would have to dedicate real money to adding that new connection. Frankly, if the consumer market doesn’t demand it, it’s just not going to happen. The engineers will talk it down and the bosses will stick to Utility Management 101: Nix the proposal and avoid rocking a perfectly serviceable boat.
On the plus side, the inability of the carriers to either see or respond to obvious market needs has led to the amazing success of Twilio and the entire communications-platform-as-a-service (CPaaS) providers. Think of it: a whole profitable industry of workarounds has developed to overcome the shortcomings of the cellular offerings! And the carriers seem bound and determined to avoid any participation in the profits going forward.
The one glimmer of hope on this front is coming from further down the food chain where mobile network equipment provider Ericsson has recently acquired cellular modem manufacturer Cradlepoint and UCaaS/CPaaS provider Vonage to beef up its enterprise capabilities. Cradlepoint gives Ericsson a line of cellular-capable data endpoints, but clearly, they are looking at Vonage as a way to tap into the lucrative CPaaS revenue stream that has bypassed the cellular carriers up until now.
This is most certainly an interesting development to watch, but Ericsson hasn’t traditionally sold directly to enterprises. Ericsson sells to the cellular carriers who would then have to add these capabilities to their product lines and competently sell them to enterprise customers. If history is any guide, that’s a pretty shaky business plan.
No, We’re Not Happy
Wireless has become a critical element in enterprise IT, whether it’s the thousands of mobile devices (both company-owned and BYOD) enterprises pay for, the sophisticated WiFi infrastructure they maintain in their company facilities, or the role that mobile connectivity plays in an organization’s overall digitalization and mobile storefront initiatives. Enterprises need wireless service in all of its various forms.
Today, the tools enterprises use to allow their people to communicate and collaborate in new and effective ways have advanced dramatically, and the role of the contact center in improving the customer experience has become a business imperative. Meanwhile, the cellular carriers are still selling us the same three services they were peddling back in 2001: voice, SMS/MMS, and best effort internet. They have augmented their product lines by selling other vendors UCaaS/TCaaS services and mobile applications like fleet management, but the core carrier business still has the same three products.
In reality, no one should be surprised at this level of performance from the carriers, because the cellular business is essentially a utility, and that’s how utilities work- slowly. Revenues continue to increase though growth has slowed as the migration to smart devices has run its course, but the cellular industry has long thrived while living down to expectations. The real concern I have going forward is that now that we have migrated from wired to wireless telephony, we have pretty much recreated the Bell System in three pieces, all of which seem to be doing the same things.
Most of our readers probably weren’t around when the communications industry was dominated by the Bell System but suffice it to say that virtually all of the great technology we take for granted today was created after the government broke up the Bell System in 1984. The cellular companies now own the vast majority of the best radio frequencies available for wide area communications -- the raw material for any new wireless service or technology. I just wonder if we are going to need another asset divestiture somewhere down the line.
Maybe this is where the carriers belong, as utility providers of very basic consumer oriented wireless services with ubiquitous coverage to connect everyone. That scenario paints a healthy future for the CPaaS business – albeit one where the carriers get no revenue, but we are starting to see the limitations in getting by with workarounds. If the carriers can’t deliver under the utility structure, the solution might be a half-way step where the carriers spin off a network interface business that caters to the developer industry.
Our industry can only go so far with workarounds. At some point, we have to evolve to a better cellular capability if we are determined to move forward.