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Sizing Up 5G (and Alternatives) at Enterprise Connect 2022
After two years of virtual events, we will once again be assembling in person for Enterprise Connect 2022 in Orlando next month. In the two years that we’ve been in virtual mode, the entire business world has come to accept the idea of remote work, which has hastened the migration to the cloud, boosted 5G interest, and AI has moved from the labs to products, delivering real benefits. Meantime, nobody is quite sure if their organization is still in sync with industry best practices.
Once again, I will be moderating the "Mobility Update: Sizing Up 5G (and Alternatives) in the Real World" session (Monday, March 21 at 10 a.m.). As always, my goal is to provide an objective business assessment of the various wireless products, services, and technologies, and to put them into a meaningful context, so enterprises can approach decisions about these services and technologies with a clear understanding of the pros, cons, and significant unknowns.
While we reference 5G in the session title, I intend to spend as much time dealing with the alternatives. As a buyer in the wireless space, you can’t pick favorites. Favorites assume that there is one objective standard against which all of these technologies are measured. That view is total nonsense.
We are looking for the best way to do a particular job, and every job is different. Where are my users? Do they move? How far? What kind of service do they need (voice, video, data, text, telemetry, etc.)? How much traffic do we expect? What kind of reliability do we need? Do the users have devices we can use, or do we have to provide them? Do I have to build this whole thing, or can I get it as a service? And that’s just the starting list. From there, we get to things like security, user support, troubleshooting requirements, and so on.
Our job isn’t to pick favorites; it’s to pick the best tool for the job. Sometimes, the choices are obvious (e.g., if it’s a wide-area requirement, your choices are pretty much cellular or satellite), but increasingly we are seeing these technology ecosystems starting to overlap, as in the case of building private 5G networks in place of (or alongside) Wi-Fi networks.
One reason clients hire me is that I have no reservations about asking really basic questions, particularly the obvious ones that the vendor seems to be avoiding and the buyer is embarrassed to ask. I’ve come up with three for our panelists:
- What have we learned from the 5G rollout thus far, and when do we get the rest of what you promised (i.e., massive machine-to-machine communications and ultra-reliable low latency communications)?
- What can private 5G do that Wi-Fi can’t?
- Indoor cellular coverage has always been problematic and worse at higher frequencies. Shouldn’t that give us pause about using your fixed wireless access (FWA) offering as a broadband option our teleworkers can depend on?
Poised To Explode?
The excitement we see today in wireless comes from the promise of great new things to come, and much of that is tied to the massive amounts of radio spectrum the FCC has released. However, it is important to remember that promises are not always fulfilled. I have been studying the wireless market for the better part of the last 50 years, and it turns out that we’ve had way more failures than successes.
Metricom’s Ricochet service was the first wireless disaster I watched unfold around the turn of the century, and that was followed by WiMAX for FWA, another wireless non-starter. As I’m writing this, Sigfox, one of the hopefuls in Internet of Things (IoT) wireless low-power WAN (LPWAN) technology, has just filed for bankruptcy. As Venture Beat summarized the difficulty, “The fundamental problem was that the IoT revolution of connected objects Sigfox had hoped to lead had simply not arrived. At least, not yet.”
The biggest testimonial as to how challenging the wireless business really is that after all this sturm und drang, we still have only two major ecosystems that constitute the bulk of the wireless market: Wi-Fi and cellular. The crazy thing is how different they are! The mobile operators are essentially the progeny of the old Bell Telephone monopolies, while Wi-Fi is this cascading competitive collaboration organized under the Wi-Fi Alliance.
The thing is anyone can recognize the benefits of wireless. However, you also need to recognize the challenges, limitations, and frustrating realities involved in delivering those benefits. To succeed, you need the determination, skill, and resources to overcome those challenges, or you will likely follow the well-worn path to failure in wireless.
So, depending on how you look at it, the wireless market is either frozen in place or poised to explode. For now, businesses are inextricably bound to these two massive ecosystems, and the fuel to power that explosion may be the massive amounts of radio spectrum the FCC has released over the past several years.
The problem of having two ecosystems is that you have two well-entrenched industries, which can create significant barriers to entry. With the mobile operators flat out owning hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of the best radio spectrum, that pretty much gives them full say over how they use it.
But the big ideas typically don’t come out of the big bureaucracies. In the end, I’m not entirely sure which of the current crop of wireless options are destined for the ash heap of history and which will deliver marvels we never imagined. However, I will be sharing my guesses, along with those of my panelists, on how all of this is likely to shake out. I hope to see you there.