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What to Watch in the Enterprise Wireless Market in 2023
In my last post, I called out the US cellular carriers for their continuing failure to deliver on any of the new enterprise-focused services. The cellular carriers appear to be totally absent from the biggest developments in enterprise networking, in particular, the tight integration of information and communications systems to deliver the amazing array of new communication and collaboration capabilities.
Fortunately for enterprise wireless buyers, the sun doesn’t rise and set on what the cellular carriers deliver. User demands for mobility continue to increase, and enterprises can look at the rest of the wireless market, which continues to pursue all manner of solutions, new, old and aspirational, in the quest to deliver new and innovative services.
Let’s take a look at some of the developing areas in enterprise wireless and what we might expect in 2023.
Wi-Fi has become the accepted worldwide standard for local wireless access, and continued enhancements to the Wi-Fi protocols and expansion into the 6 GHz frequency band further cements its ongoing importance.
While cellular technology aspired to encroach on Wi-Fi’s turf with the introduction of private 5G (P5P), and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) envisions with a worldwide network of subscription-based Wi-Fi networks, the balance between Wi-Fi and cellular seems to have reached a stasis.
Wi-Fi remains a core technology for enterprise IT. The major enterprise infrastructure providers like Cisco and HP Aruba continue to deliver products incorporating the latest standards and capabilities, thus allowing IT departments to provide top notch in-house Wi-Fi mobility. Importantly, as enterprise IT shifts more towards as-a-service solutions, the Wi-Fi ecosystem includes any number of service providers who will install and maintain Wi-Fi “as a service.”
The real key to Wi-Fi’s success is that its development is driven by the speed and customer focus of the tech industry rather than the cellular utilities. Competition drives change, and the cellular utilities have settled into a comfortable three-way oligopoly with virtually identical service offerings. Wi-Fi’s collaborative competition has produced a 25+ year track record of delivering useful (and backwards compatible) enhancements to support local wireless connectivity.
Much of the credit for that success goes to the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA), the industry association that rides herd over the expanding universe of component and product suppliers who depend on Wi-Fi for connectivity.
I recently spoke with Kevin Robinson, the recently promoted CEO of the Wi-Fi Alliance, to see how he thinks the wireless industry will move forward. Working with enterprises that require a wide variety of wireless solutions, my interest centers on how to get Wi-Fi and cellular services to collaborate and deliver the best overall user experience. The WFA is working on some of the thorny ongoing challenges like how mobile devices choose between Wi-Fi and cellular if both are available, and how technologies like multi-path TCP will allow both services to be used simultaneously.
One particularly interesting opportunity Mr. Robinson discussed was the potential to use Wi-Fi as an indoor cellular solution courtesy of the mobile device’s Wi-Fi calling capability. That would position Wi-Fi as a cost-effective way to improve indoor cellular coverage when compared to distributed antenna systems (DAS). DAS replacement is also one of the applications being proposed for private 5G (P5G) networks, a topic we will return to in a moment.
Whatever else happens in the world of wireless going forward, Wi-Fi, whatever version of Wi-Fi we are up to at that point, will be part of that picture for many years to come.
We'll See Whether Cellular Integration Will Target Team Collaboration Platforms
In my last post I bemoaned the apparent inability of the cellular industry to envision any network capability beyond what was needed by consumers; in the cellular world, gamers get way more attention than business customers. Dave Michels discussed the opportunity to better integrate cellular services in a recent post, and replace the sorry set of workarounds enterprises employ to extend their internal unified communications/team collaboration (UC/TC) capabilities to remote users.
The enterprise communications business has moved far beyond dedicated on-premises voice PBX systems to cloud-based UC/TC platforms like Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. However, the cellular networks have provided no direct way of integrating their services with this new environment.
At last year’s Enterprise Connect in Orlando, Cisco, Microsoft, and Ring Central were all touting a new generation of cellular network integration that “teased” at the idea of greater user functionality and fewer problem-prone workarounds.
We plan to have these companies represented on our Integrating 5G Cellular With UC/Team Collaboration panel at Enterprise Connect 2023 this March to discuss how these capabilities enhance the UC/TC user experience.
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Will Watch What Satellites Do This Year
Last year I did a series of posts comparing the various options in the FWA market, and enterprises are still wrestling with how to best deliver broadband access in hard to serve areas.
For now, the cellular FWA offerings from Verizon and T-Mobile are grabbing the lion’s share of the fledgling FWA business; AT&T still emphasizes its fiber-based services over FWA. The total number of cellular FWA subscribers comes in a little over 3 million at the end of 2022, but to put that in perspective, Statista puts the number of broadband households in the US at about 110 million, thus giving cellular FWA roughly a 3% market share.
While the two cellular carriers pushing FWA are showing some early success, the specialized wireless ISP (WISP) market is facing a serious squeeze if not a full-blown existential crisis. WISPs pioneered the idea of specialized fixed wireless systems for broadband access, but they are getting squeezed by the cellular FWA offerings on one side and increased fiber availability on the other. That fiber threat is intensified by the various US government plans to subsidize broadband rollouts. The government appears to be favoring fiber broadband over fixed wireless, despite the fact that many of the projects being funded are costing $20,000 per house passed.
For now, the entire FWA market is holding its breath waiting to see how strong a competitor SpaceX’s Starlink and the other broadband data satellite constellations prove to be, as a strong satellite offering could alter the fundamental dynamics of the expanding broadband internet market.
Next Generation Satellite Constellations
The new generation of low earth orbit satellite constellations, led by SpaceX’s Starlink, holds the greatest promise of transforming the wireless broadband market in the coming years. I emphasize the word “promise.”
As I’ve described in earlier posts, Starlink is proposing a new generation of low earth orbit satellites (LEOS) to provide cost effective worldwide broadband internet access with downstream data rates of 50 M to 200 Mbps and latencies in the 20 to 40 msec range for residential users. There are a number of other providers looking to follow in Starlink’s tracks.
Initially focused on fixed wireless, Starlink is already branching out into shipboard units, air-to-ground systems for aircraft, and even devices for recreational vehicles. However, all of these wonders are dependent on putting a whole lot of new technology up in space and making it work reliably and consistently enough for people to trust it over other wireless Internet options.
Up until now, Starlink has not been able to demonstrate its ability to deliver on its promised data rates, but the network is not yet fully deployed. Starlink’s competitors are still in the trial phases, and will likely face challenges of their own.
With its worldwide coverage footprint, Starlink will be able to operate in a lot of places where there are no other alternatives. However, it’s not clear if connecting the unserved will continue to be a market big enough (and rich enough) to support a profitable business, or the degree to which Starlink will have to compete with other forms of FWA as well as the incumbent cable and fiber broadband services.
Since we’re on the topic of satellites, we should make mention of the long-held dream of integrating cellular and satellite technologies to deliver truly seamless worldwide wireless voice/data/video/text communications- at least outdoors.
With its Emergency SOS service (introduced with the iPhone 14 late last year), Apple has defined the leading edge in terms of deliverability in the cellular-satellite arena. Offered in conjunction with partner Globalstar, Apple's Emergency SOS feature allows an iPhone 14 user to send an emergency text alert with location data via Globalstar’s low earth orbit satellite network. However, even using that rather rudimentary capability requires that the user employ an app on the iPhone that directs them how to point the phone at the satellite.
This is a far cry from the very long-term goal – that users will have the ability to make and receive satellite phone calls and texts along with support for broadband data connections using a standard cell phone anywhere in the world. T-Mobile made a very forward-looking announcement with Starlink where they included that vision, but also pointed to the more achievable shorter termed goal of a texting capability via Starlink’s satellites. In the meantime, those same capabilities are being explored by companies like Lynk Global, Omnispace, and AST SpaceMobile, the latter of whom has been in tests with AT&T.
At the Consumer Electronics Show last week, Qualcomm and Google announced an emergency satellite texting service for Android that will make us of Iridium’s LEOS network.
As I noted when I discussed these offerings in the past, the big challenge will be getting a mobile device designed to send a signal a few miles at most to a local cell tower to generate a signal strong enough to be heard reliably by a satellite zipping by a few hundred miles up in space. No one is talking about anything but outdoor operation.
All of the proposed solutions are looking at using satellites with very large (i.e. up to 64 m2) phased array antennas. Sounds great in concept, but when you look at what Apple is demonstrating as practically achievable today (with tools to manually aim the phone), you can get an idea of how far we have to go.
My near-term hopes for our new satellite services are still grounded in services like decent quality fixed location broadband access and we’ll see where we go from there.
The Private 5G Market Faces an Inflection Point
I couldn’t finish without at least some mention of the fledgling -- “struggling” might be a more accurate description-- market for private networks built using 5G radio technology using the Citizen Band Radio Service (CBRS) frequencies. The P5G market appears to be gaining little traction in the US, though there have been reports of large-scale deployments in Europe and other markets. At this point, it is unclear if those deployments are trials, proof-of-concept deployments, or full price services for paying customers.
One hard fact that P5G is facing: P5G cannot match the price of a private Wi-Fi deployment for the vast majority of existing requirements, and buyers do not value the claims of vastly improved security, reliability, and performance enough to pay the difference- particularly when Wi-Fi seems to working just fine.
The options for the P5G going forward seem to come down to: 1) fixing the product, or 2) finding another place to sell it. Fixing the product would involve coming out with a cheaper, more enterprise-focused solution along with a distribution channel that could actually design, sell, and maintain it. Celona seems to be leading on that front.
For now, the cellular industry has coalesced around option 2 in an all-out hunt for IoT, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), and other as yet undiscovered industrial applications where P5G might provide a unique advantage. P5G could shine in areas where the coverage requirement spans a very large area like mining operation, a port, or an airport.
I’m not writing off the P5G idea just yet, but it’s about time for these guys to either get real or get lost.
Mobility continues to be a key imperative for enterprise communications going forward in terms of supporting internal users, connecting with customers and suppliers, and supporting the overall organizational objectives for digitization. However, the multi-faceted nature of the wireless industry presents a challenge to any leading-edge enterprise that must cobble these various products and services together to deliver the types of capabilities organizations need to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
The good news is that the market continues to present new options, but it remains the buyer’s job to ensure all of these various piece parts work together to deliver the capability, reliability, security, and manageability enterprises require.
I can’t wait to see what this dynamic (but admittedly “messy”) process delivers in 2023.
Fixed Wireless Access Series Links