The overarching hype that has surrounded 5G has confused the wireless market with the goal of portraying cellular service as the answer for all of our wireless requirements going forward. In essence, it has misaligned our solar system and placed cellular at the center of it. Nice try, but this view is far from accurate.
Wireless is a large, multifaceted business with countless interdependencies and competitive pressures. Cellular, and this new 5G flavor of it, is but one element in this unique market. Wi-Fi continues to carry the bulk of wireless data traffic, including 75% of smartphone data traffic
, and so remains an equally powerful market force.
Cellular service can boast a significant advantage with nearly ubiquitous coverage, but Wi-Fi is cheap, readily available, and supported on far more devices. Beyond those two heavy hitters, the wireless market includes any number of specialized submarkets like police radios, geosynchronous and low-earth orbit satellites, point-to-point microwave, meter reading systems, and more things than you could imagine. Each one has different characteristics, economics, and applications and user profiles, and many of the options overlap to some extent.
With digital transformation, enterprise buyers may now be dragged into project teams tasked with evaluating which has the best mix of cost, capabilities, features, reliability, coverage, security and all of the other characteristics that meet their unique requirements. In the end, cellular may be the best answer, but you don’t make that assumption at the outset.
Why So Much Talk About 5G?
If you just think about the money — in particular, ad spending — then it’s not hard to figure out why there’s so much talk about 5G. Cellular carriers are among the biggest spenders in mass market advertising. The thing is, they’re spending this ad money one way or the other, and every now and then they need a new theme. I mean, how long can you go on with, “Can you hear me now?”
Bingo… 5G! Now we’ve got something to talk about! And away they go spinning those mass media ad budgets into 5G gold! Who’s spending that kind of money advertising Wi-Fi, or anything else having to do with wireless?
However, as is often the case, having the biggest megaphone doesn’t mean you actually have much of significance to say.
The Wireless Business In Toto
I’ve got a great seat for watching this whole 5G thing play out, because I look at the “wireless business.” In my role, I don’t get to have favorites. I work with clients whose requirements are all over the map, so I really have to look at each of them in terms of “what can you do for me?” In short, I get to kick the tires on most wireless options.
The core cellular offering of mobile voice/video/text/data access for individuals has become a virtual necessity. Competitive pressures have forced cellular carriers to continue investing in plant upgrades with the goal of continuous service performance improvements and the ability to support an ever-expanding range of services.
With that once-lucrative market now saturated, carriers are expanding into other areas. For example, they’ve scored some big successes with Internet of Things (IoT) vehicle systems, like GM’s OnStar
. However, all of the vendors in all of the various wireless markets are also looking to grow and expand, so conflicts among them are inevitable.
The carriers have won 5G the “market awareness” award, thanks to their advertising budgets, but they’ll need to fight the real battle out in the marketplace — and that presents a far more complex set of interdependencies.
Handicapping the Big Three
A quick cut at the wireless market shows three major elements, the last being an “everything else” category.
I don’t think 5G is first in importance, but when zealots are involved, it’s best not to antagonize them. Without question, carriers will upgrade their networks to 5G, but thus far they’ve promised far more than they’ve delivered. The current focus is on enhanced mobile broadband, which is essentially the same cellular data service you currently have, only faster (possibly).
You’ll recall that carriers also promised us denser IoT deployments (i.e., more devices per square kilometer) and ultra-reliable, low-latency services for better online gaming and autonomous vehicles, but neither of those services have seen the light of day. In the meantime, the handset manufacturers are still gearing up to deliver devices capable of supporting the faster 5G mobile broadband service we do have, but the addition of new frequency bands for 5G and different carrier strategies for deploying them will make that process more challenging. Following the acquisition of Sprint’s network, T-Mobile shut down
Sprint’s fledgling 2.5-GHz 5G offering to incorporate those channels into T-Mobile’s longer-term 5G plans. That effectively made obsolete the older Qualcomm X50-based phones Sprint had sold.
So, we’re still waiting for the game-changing capabilities that generated all the excitement around 5G in the first place.
Wi-Fi is the other major component in the wireless space, and it has seen the same boosts in performance we have seen in cellular, often using the same bag of technical tricks. The latest release, dubbed 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6
, supports data rates up to 9.6 Gbps using radio channels as wide as 160 MHz; that fits nicely with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent doubling of the amount of available unlicensed spectrum. Further, the Wi-Fi Alliance
has done a spectacular job of making sure that all of the various products carrying the Wi-Fi Certification
work together seamlessly.
As a market, Wi-Fi breaks down into three main parts: simple home networks, centrally-controlled enterprise networks, and public Wi-Fi hotspots. In the home market, Wi-Fi providers have wirelessly enabled millions of households and helped create the residential IoT industry with a range of home security and automation products that connect over Wi-Fi. They’ve have also pioneered a smartphone-based installation/set-up plan that is pure genius.
For the public hot spot market, the Wireless Broadband Alliance’s new OpenRoaming
initiative could put Wi-Fi in direct competition with cellular. OpenRoaming promises to create a framework for connecting Wi-Fi networks globally so a subscriber on one Wi-Fi network service could automatically connect to any participant’s Wi-Fi service worldwide.
The cellular carriers are notorious for spreading fibs and half-truths about Wi-Fi deficiencies, but Wi-Fi is often the first choice for consumers and the network smartphones prefer for their data.
Into the Great Wide Open
As I noted above, dozens of small specialized services and applications round out the wireless market, and this amorphous “other” category is poised to explode. I’ve written about this recently
, so I won’t bother repeating myself, but for my money the massive increase in spectrum availability, rather than 5G, is the big story in wireless. Over the past several years, the FCC has opened almost 2 GHz of new licensed and unlicensed mid-band spectrum (i.e. 1 GHz to 6 GHz) as well as tens of gigahertz in the higher frequency millimeter bands.
The carriers are grabbing up some of this spectrum, but the FCC’s big hope is that by eliminating the bottleneck of spectrum availability, new suppliers with new wireless technologies will be encouraged to take a crack at the market.
Making a wide-area wireless service work reliably and profitably is still a major challenge, but given users’ untrammeled embrace of wireless, I’m fully confident that any number of entrepreneurs will line up to seize this opportunity.
I’m watching other areas in wireless as well, but these are the big money pieces on the chessboard right now.
Money Talks, But Be Wary of What It Says
Thanks to their advertising budgets, the carriers have been able to dominate the wireless conversation, but they’re touting but one option in a marvelously rich wireless marketplace. What they haven’t done effectively is describe how 5G will fit together with the significant Wi-Fi infrastructure we’ve already deployed, both in homes and businesses, other than to say, “Oh, we can do that, too.” Thanks for the suggestion, and we will certainly take it under consideration.
At the core, what people desire is the ability to communicate and access information and services while being free to move about. The great thing about wireless is that you don’t have to sell it — users intuitively understand the advantage, and despite deficits in reliability and availability, people still love that ability to communicate while on the go. More than that they appreciate the myriad of mobile services that are available over wireless networks thanks to the app revolution.
I believe we’re heading into a great era in wireless, one that will see the existing technologies improve while new ones are tested in the marketplace. 5G will be part of that, but this story is far bigger and richer than just that. In this new world of wireless, enterprise buyers have to be ready to tune out the blare of advertising and assess all of their options objectively.
This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.