With contributing author Masum Mir, Vice President and General Manager for Cisco’s Cable, Mobile, and IoT business
The next generation of wireless is going to do far more than connect people and machines. Yes, 5G, Private 5G, and Wi-Fi 6 can augment existing enterprise networks and provide the necessary coverage, quality of service (QoS), and resiliency companies require. But these technologies are also enabling a whole new crop of emerging digital use cases. They include:
- The integration or convergence of information technology (IT) systems with operational technology (OT) systems for more efficiencies
- Management of multiple network segments through a single pane of glass
- An enhanced experience for employees in office buildings, at home, and on the go
- More efficient and sustainable energy usage in offices
- Greater optimization of office space and costs
- Safer and more secure working environments
With wireless technologies like Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, the role of the network is changing. It’s not just for connectivity anymore. It’s become a foundational service that powers everything from devices to experiences to the flow of work, traffic, health, and safety.
Masum and I shared this perspective recently at a Mobile World Congress session exploring how 5G and Wi-Fi 6 can seamlessly integrate with existing networks and processes to become a key component of digital transformation within enterprises and diverse industries.
More Bandwidth for More People and Things
Wireless networking will be a foundational technology for enterprises. A 2020 study of 2,600 business and technology decision makers in 12 industries across Europe, Asia, and North America found that 79% are convinced 5G will have a significant impact on their organizations, with 57% saying it will be “revolutionary.”
Features like faster connection speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, higher device capacity, and lower latency are empowering businesses and smart cities to create new experiences using 5G networks. Meanwhile, Wi-Fi 6 is growing as a wireless connection option. A new forecast predicts that there will be 628 million Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E hotspots globally by 2023. Wireless is also being driven by the dramatic growth of IoT; wireless is forecast to account for 30.9 billion IoT connected devices throughout the world by 2025.
The pandemic proved that digitalization isn’t just a way for companies to improve efficiencies and improve customer experience. It’s the key to their survival. Wireless networks are going to be an increasing enabler of various emerging digital use cases, complementing cloud services, edge networking, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Big Role for Service Providers and Cisco Partners
A new study has found that 92% of business leaders agree that their companies must deploy more digital solutions and process automation in the workplace to survive and thrive. But 86% cited barriers like the complexity of integrating and managing multiple processes. This is a huge opportunity for service providers along with Cisco and our partners to provide connectivity, simplified management, managed services options, and identity services to augment an enterprise’s existing cyber security.
Studies by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) see the major growth in wireless revenues by service providers coming from enterprises and Internet of Things deployments, instead of from consumers. Already, service provider architectures are changing to accommodate these wireless network use cases. Cisco, our partners and service providers are building highly distributed 5G architectures that feature automation and IP everywhere. Service delivery platforms in distributed clouds provide applications and services. Processing is pushed closer to end users at the network edge for huge efficiency gains, real-time operation, and cost benefits.
There is a critical step, however, to positioning wireless technologies for the enterprise. Six years ago, I asked a hospital what they wanted in their wireless network. The answer was: “We want our doctors and employees to focus on their patients.” I realized then that each industry looks at desired outcomes, not specific technologies. That’s how to sell the next generation of wireless to enterprise companies.
Use Cases Define the Criteria for Wireless Network Selection
Before enterprises choose between Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, they will define their relevant use cases. A university campus will have different requirements and limitations than cars on the open road. It’s important to define:
- The nature of the IoT devices that will be used (e.g., chips, sensors, tablets, OS, firmware)
- The coverage area (e.g., a building, a large university campus) and what spectrum is available
- What applications will be used (e.g., premise-based ERP, cloud services, hybrid cloud)
- Network reliability service level agreement (SLA) required (e.g., five nines or 99.999%, network availability)
- Financial considerations (e.g., overall cost, CapEx versus OpEx)
How Wi-Fi 6 and 5G Work Together to Support Enterprise Use Cases
Both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technologies have common underpinnings (Figure 1). They’re designed for higher performance, higher capacity, and tighter security than other generations of wireless technology. They are also capable of scaling to support numerous IoT devices.
So why would a business need to deploy both technologies? Picture a large automobile factory. It might be upwards of five million square feet. There are thousands of workers coming in and out, including factory employees, vendors who might be making deliveries and others. Those workers are connecting to the network via personal and third party-issued devices. On that same manufacturing floor, you have millions of precise robotic devices that assemble the cars. The devices need to work in perfect concert, to the millisecond, or the entire assembly line is thrown off, resulting in delays or a faulty product. In this scenario, the Wi-Fi network is critical to support workers’ device connectivity, while the 5G network is required to support the mission-critical tasks of the assembly robots.
Let’s look at one more example – a large hotel property. The guest experience is paramount and guests want to know that they can walk from the lobby to their room to the hotel gym and their web conferencing call or streaming TV show won’t drop. Wi-Fi 6 is ideal to give guests that strong bandwidth and consistent connectivity. At the same time, the hotel has installed “smart” solutions throughout the property; their lighting, security cameras and motion sensors are all connected to the internet via a 5G network that is ideal for indoor and outdoor coverage.
In most large enterprises and industries, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will work together to seamlessly provide connectivity across a diverse set of needs such as the ones illustrated above. Wi-Fi 6 is used to connect many devices in the same location to a high-speed backbone, to deliver higher speeds per user than 5G, and to support bring your own device (BYOD) integrations. 5G, and particularly Private 5G networks deployed by an enterprise directly or via a service provider, does a great job outdoors and over larger distances. It is also less vulnerable to interference from other network signals and delivers greater network availability to businesses.
Wireless Technologies are Accelerating Business Transformation
Today, wireless technologies support both connectivity and digitization (Figure 2).
Cisco has an ecosystem of channel partners that span different industries globally and are ready to help enterprises analyze their needs, design wireless networking solutions, and deploy them as turnkey solutions or cloud services. We’re working with our partners and service providers to build highly scalable digital 5G service platforms that enterprises can control and use to consume services that have clear SLAs and edge environments that optimize network performance and cost. Onboarding devices should be simple. Integration with a secure access service edge (SASE) architecture should be seamless and scalable.
At Cisco we are building a bridge between 5G, Wi-Fi and the existing network infrastructure. These wireless technologies are not fragmented new islands, but rather a seamless part of wired and wireless access that will play a major role in the digitalization of businesses.