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Cisco’s Quiet Entry Rocks the Prospects for Private 5G

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Image: JL - Alamy Stock Photo
Buried within a press release innocuously titled “Cisco Reveals New Innovations to Help Businesses Make Hybrid Work, Work,” Cisco quietly declared its intention to enter the private 5G market as part of its “The Network. Powering Hybrid Work” launch. In the second summary bullet point Cisco mentions, “Company unveils the industry’s first high-end Wi-Fi 6E access points, Private 5G for the enterprise as a managed service, and new high-powered Catalyst 9000X series switches.” Cisco’s plan to offer private 5G doesn’t even get its own bullet point!
 
Cisco’s low-key private 5G announcement was accompanied by the launch of a Cisco Private 5G web page that features a swell though largely meaningless two-minute video, and a blog by Masum Mir, Cisco’s VP and General Manager for the company’s Mobile, Cable and IoT businesses. The blog gives a general (very general) idea about what Cisco intends to offer, and a teaser promising further details at the upcoming Mobile World Congress in Barcelona at the end of this month. A move into cellular technology would be a major departure for Cisco. Cisco has been a long-time supplier to the cellular operators, but their sales have been primarily in the core or backbone network where it’s “switches-and-routers.” The real gem of the cellular business, and 70% of the cellular network investment, revolves around the radio access network (RAN), where Cisco has almost no presence.
 
I suspect those details will include either a joint venture or, more likely, an acquisition of a company that has the 5G radio technology that Cisco currently lacks. Cisco has a habit of acquiring companies that pioneer the technologies it uses to build new businesses. Cisco became a leading provider in the nascent enterprise Wi-Fi infrastructure business with its acquisition of Aironet in 1999. In 2005, the company acquired Airspace, a pioneer in centrally-controlled WLAN systems in 2005, and in 2012 it acquired Meraki, the company that pioneered the idea of a cloud-based WLAN controller. That testifies to Cisco’s chops in indoor wireless networks using Wi-Fi, but mastering cellular protocols are a different beast entirely.
 
However stealthy its entry, Cisco’s entry into the private 5G market would be a major step in addressing many of the challenges private 5G has been facing. That’s not to say that a private 5G market will miraculously appear because Cisco deigned it so, but at least there will be enterprise-focused products that will allow businesses to determine if there’s any value to be had from this experiment.
 
How Steep Is the Climb to Private 5G?
I have written extensively about the unknowns, prospects, and the challenges facing the fledgling market for private 5G networks, and Cisco’s announcement addresses several of them. The core of that problem is a lack of products specifically designed for enterprise needs and an effective go-to-market (GTM) strategy. A key element in that GTM strategy that has been missing is a competent channel network, and we all know Cisco has that in spades.
 
I have to laugh when I read about Amazon’s plans for a private 5G managed network service that “makes it easy to deploy, operate, and scale your own private cellular network.”
 
Unless you’re talking about a wireless network with the complexity (and range!) of your cordless phone at home, nothing in wireless is easy. You need a solution that addresses those network design and ongoing management challenges, or you have no credibility.
 
We learned all of that in twenty-plus years designing and implementing wireless LANs — as well as learning about the need to have people with tools and training to: design the WLAN coverage; integrate with the wired infrastructure (e.g., PoE LAN switches); and maintain/modify/troubleshoot that infrastructure as needs change and traffic grows. Those two decades of experience also guide decisions about what type of monitoring and management capabilities we should be building into that infrastructure.
 
Through its channel partners, Cisco has an army of those people with those experiences, along with tons of insight into what enterprise buyers are looking for in the way of mobility. The challenge will be for Cisco to train those people in cellular radio technology to the same degree they understand Wi-Fi. People sell what they are confident in, and if Cisco can’t develop that level of expertise with 5G radio technology, the channel partners will stick with what they know, and private 5G will languish on the shelf.
 
On the equipment front, enterprises have had few reasonable choices for 5G infrastructure, and many of the pilot deployments have had to resort to scaled-down versions of systems designed for the needs of public network carriers. Those platforms are designed for carrier-scale implementations, and many of the management capabilities we find integrated in enterprise products are separate add-on systems in a carrier environment. In short, it fits like socks on a rooster.
 
“We believe the competitors are going about it the wrong way. They would have you adopt a complex, carrier-centric 5G solution that’s radically different from what you already know and use. Some even ignore Wi-Fi entirely,” Mir wrote in his blog.
 
At the moment, Cisco doesn’t have that enterprise-appropriate solution either, but Cisco could either buy or develop that technology. If history is any guide, Cisco’s looking at an acquisition (or at the very least, a deep strategic partnership) to arm their army of Cisco-certified distributors to wage the war for private 5G. I think I know who it is.
 
And the Winner Is…
Having watched the private 5G market (what exists of it) from the outset and having talked with executives at many of the participating companies, my guess is that Cisco is targeting Celona Networks for acquisition.
 
I’ve mentioned Celona in some of my coverage of the private 5G area, and from my viewpoint their team seems to have the most enterprise-appropriate product portfolio, and the most well-conceived GTM plan giving it the best shot at cracking the enterprise private 5G market — if there is a market there to be cracked in the first place.
 
What Celona and the rest of the private 5G market lacks is a well-trained distribution channel as exists in the enterprise Wi-Fi market; obviously, that’s where Cisco comes in. Importantly, Celona has developed its own innovative LTE and 5G radio interfaces and access points, providing the 5G radio technology that Cisco lacks. The platform takes a cloud-based controller approach a la Cisco’s Meraki.
 
Most importantly, Celona’s executive team includes among its ranks a number of Aruba Networks alumni and other people with WLAN backgrounds. That will pay big dividends in describing to enterprise CIOs where private 5G can fit into their plans, how they can support it, and how it can integrate with their Wi-Fi infrastructure.
 
In his blog, Mir alludes to a “vision of the future of work is built on wireless through a combination of private 5G and Wi-Fi”; that description could cover a wide variety of potential implementations. In the short term, that will likely mean that Celona’s (or some similar) private 5G gear runs essentially in parallel with the customer’s Wi-Fi network, though it does hold out the hope of some deeper level of integration in the future.
 
In raw business terms, that mean if the demand for private 5G capability is sufficient (i.e., meets Cisco’s internal targets) that would justify the investment required to integrate Celona’s technology into its Catalyst line. That would entail integrating both the basic traffic handling and the network management and security capabilities, so CIOs can feel confident they can put this 5G stuff into use and be able to support it like they do for Wi-Fi.
 
Private 5G Will Depend on What Cisco Puts Into It
I hope I didn’t ruin Cisco’s big surprise. A private 5G offering from the behemoth of enterprise networks might be small news for Cisco, but it’s really big news in a market as small and disorganized as private 5G. How big an impact will depend on how much muscle Cisco is willing to put behind this.
 
With its WLAN channel partners, Cisco holds one of the key elements to the private 5G GTM problem. Celona would give them a workable platform to test the concept, and based on the market uptake Cisco can decide how much it will be worth to invest in integrating the private 5G solution into its overall management and monitoring capabilities. In short, that “single-pane-of-glass: vision might be some way off, but you should be able to try out private 5G if you think there’s a place it makes sense.
 
I’m excited about this because private 5G networks using cellular technology and licensed radio spectrum from CBRS is one of the exciting new ideas we’re seeing in enterprise wireless. What Cisco, in combination with a Celona-type partner, brings to the party moves private 5G's prospects decidedly away from total fantasy to a far more realistic option for enterprises to consider.

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I’ll be talking about the prospects for private 5G and other topics in enterprise mobility in my session Mobility Update: Sizing Up 5G (and Alternatives) in the Real World, at Enterprise Connect ’22 Monday March 21 at 10:00AM.

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