It’s been a long and complicated path to reach this point. The typical process of leaping from the drawing board to the enterprise involves publication of new standards, earning regulatory approvals (first in the United States, and then by degrees elsewhere in the world), the introduction of compatible connected devices and then, finally, earning broader marketplace adoption. It’s been made even more complicated by the very element of both Wi-Fi® and cellular that makes convergence possible in the first place: the availability of shared, unlicensed and licensed spectrum and the challenges in managing that spectrum responsibly and efficiently.
In 2023, we’re going to see how amazingly that code has been cracked. Assisted by an increasingly cooperative regulatory environment, the future of enterprise networks is about to be born on a global scale.
The here and now
Today, many large enterprise environments rely on a mix of Wi-Fi and indoor/outdoor small cell or distributed antenna systems (DAS) for cellular connectivity. The two networks run side by side, each with its own strengths for particular applications. Wi-Fi is well-suited to most connectivity needs, as it’s an economical and efficient way to connect users and (increasingly often) IoT devices and other infrastructure. Cellular networks, on the other hand, offer superior mobility over large distances and high speeds, automatic sim card authentication and security, and of course lower latency (particularly with 5G). In our experience, we find that most enterprises that employ both networks see about 80 to 90 percent of traffic moving over Wi-Fi and the remainder over cellular, reinforcing Wi-Fi as the workhorse of connectivity, and cellular as the specialized option for critical applications.
Both Wi-Fi and cellular technologies have recently gained immense new bandwidth through the addition of unlicensed shared spectrum. In Wi-Fi’s case, this is the 6GHz band accessible to Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7 which basically quadruples throughput. In private LTE and 5G cellular networks in the United States, it’s the addition of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5GHz band which adds 150MHz of spectrum. This band is lightly licensed and far more easily available to enterprises than traditional 3GPP licensed bandwidth. Outside of the US, similar concepts are being adopted to offer “industrial spectrum” for enterprise private mobile networks.
Of course, there are still some rules governing both these newly available bands. The 6GHz band is used by fixed satellite service (FSS) applications, and the 3.5GHz band is used by U.S. Navy radar systems—and these incumbents get right of first refusal. This priority is affected by recently developed and highly innovative automatic access managements schemes. Wi-Fi 6E has an access management device called automated frequency coordination, or AFC, and CBRS has adopted a spectrum access system, or SAS, for LTE/5G.
Convergence, not conquest, on the horizon
It’s commonly held that private wireless networks are exclusively cellular networks. Indeed, some wonder if and when cellular advances will finally overwhelm Wi-Fi’s advantages and replace the technology altogether. But the future we see is one where there isn’t conquest of one network over the other, but a convergence of the two that is greater than the sum of its parts.
New IEEE standards aim to make Wi-Fi 7 approach similar latency and reliability as that found in cellular networks. There is also a solution to troublesome per-network authentication procedures in the development of Hot Spot 2.0, or Wi-Fi Certified Passpoint®, which eliminates manual device authentication on participating Wi-Fi networks.
Likewise, new private LTE/5G architectures are employing all-digital fronthaul over shared IT infrastructure to power virtualized single-cell coverage of larger areas and mixed indoor/outdoor environments, reducing or eliminating cross-sector interference and greatly improving both performance and energy efficiency.
As their capabilities approach parity in 2023 and beyond, we’re expecting to see these two fast-evolving network technologies cross-pollinate to become a converged, user-transparent unified platform that shifts seamlessly between technologies as needed—no more manual logging into a Wi-Fi network, and no concerns over cellular roaming. This federation of networks means more powerful IoT capabilities and consistently superior user connectivity across the enterprise, from the lowest parking level to the highest office suite, from the warehouse to the manufacturing floor, and across the entire logistics chain. Shared spectrum will enable applications that will redefine industry and commerce as we know it today.
The potential of a converged private wireless network
With the growing adoption of compatible devices, we see this trend accelerating as issues of efficiency and security grow more and more important for enterprises worldwide—and the applications are virtually unlimited:
- Manufacturing and industry: Large physical plants or campus environments are best covered by cellular networks, but indoors, Wi-Fi is the more flexible option. When workers and their devices are traveling around a 20-acre yard before coming inside, seamless transitions on a unified platform can help ensure both productivity and worker safety.
- Warehouse and logistics: Industrial robots are being used alongside human workers more and more often, moving at speeds that require precise control to avoid accidents and injuries. These robots rely on super-fast, low-latency 5G connectivity to operate safely, indoors or out. Meanwhile, automated inventory systems can work perfectly well on Wi-Fi.
- Healthcare delivery: Hospital and clinical settings rely on total network availability, top-shelf security and maximum network speed. They are also loaded with connected devices, telemetry and equipment inventory sensors. While many of these applications are suited to Wi-Fi connectivity, others—including remote robotic surgeries—demand the low latency of 5G networks. To deliver medical services, modern healthcare needs both networks—but they don’t need the extra overhead of managing them independently.
- Large public venues, arenas and stadiums: These environments are difficult to cover because they often require both indoor and outdoor coverage and have intermittent periods of extremely high demand. With a converged private network, these venues can run business networks operations (ticketing, concessions and so forth) over more secure 5G networks while letting fans post their selfies over Wi-Fi in the stands.
- Residential/MDU opportunities: In addition to more traditional enterprise settings, dense residential structures such as condominiums, college dormitories, military barracks and others can benefit from a converged private network that can connect calls and power building security devices, electronic locks and more. In these settings, the cost of deploying the private network can be offset by marketing its capabilities as a premium, turning it into a new revenue stream.
A growing threat: IoT device security
Another important consideration is the proliferation of new connected devices in smart building applications. While a boon to efficiency and cost control, IoT devices are also an increasingly popular entry point for bad actors looking for network access. As far back as 2016, it was demonstrated that ransomware could be introduced via connected thermostats, with building occupants either roasted or frozen until ransom was paid. You can even learn how to do it in a 30-minute You Tube video.
IoT devices require special attention to keep them secure. While the tools exist to lock these devices down, they can be difficult to use for those without specialized security training. The silicon within IoT devices works with security credentials from certificate providers to ensure that every connection is legitimate but getting these two sides to mesh—the silicon’s toolbox and the certificate provider’s credentials—is an accountability gap that falls to the enterprise IT staff.
A converged private network provides the foundation for a software-based credentials management system that can protect all IoT devices—whether connected by Wi-Fi or cellular networks—and continuously evolve to address new threats as they emerge. In a sense, such a credentials management system is the IoT of IoTs, in that automates access and control to secure the entire IoT environment.
The future is brighter—and closer—than you think
We see all this and more leading the market in 2023 and expanding in the years that follow. The alignment of friendlier regulation, increased adoption of compatible devices and the compelling business case for private networks in the enterprise all point to amazing things in the coming year.
Vast new bandwidth allocations, smarter management of shared spectrum and the approaching near-parity of Wi-Fi and cellular network capabilities mean that we won’t see a “winner” emerge from the competition between the two. Rather, we’re going to see something incredible emerge from their convergence.
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