2019 is going to be an incredible year in wireless networking. Enterprises are going to be able to take advantage of several important innovations.

First, 5G carrier-based wireless is going to start rolling out broadly, bringing a promise of dramatically better performance to mobile workers and the enterprise. Additionally, standards-based Wi-Fi 6 will be available in 2019. Wi-Fi 6 will dramatically improve the wireless experience, and it will enable new use cases for wireless that weren’t possible before. Quick on the heels of both of these rollouts will be CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service, also known as OnGo), an extension of LTE that offers a new band of uncrowded spectrum. It will be especially valuable for mission-critical IoT applications.

With so much changing in how we connect, we are looking at a rare opportunity to combine technological change with strategic planning, as we explore how new wireless capabilities will change the way our businesses operate.

Common Tech

Before we get into the changes we’ll see in network planning due to these technologies, we have to understand how they’re different — and how they are actually coming together.

In 2019, both carrier-based mobile connectivity (LTE and 5G cellular) and unlicensed nomadic networking (Wi-Fi 6, otherwise known as 802.11ax), will converge in two key areas: radio signal encoding, and scheduling.

Both new wireless systems use the same method to squeeze more users and data into the frequencies they use, so each base station or access point can talk to more devices simultaneously. Also, with Wi-Fi 6, local wireless networking gets more scheduled, deterministic use of spectrum. Unlike other versions of Wi-Fi, which use a randomized channel access mechanism, with Wi-Fi 6, a device can rely on being able to use the radio on a particular schedule (measured by the millisecond). Scheduled access enables lower latency and allows for greater density of devices. And it has a positive impact on power use and battery longevity. In this regard Wi-Fi is advancing alongside 3GPP cellular technologies (like 5G and LTE), which are also deterministic.

Despite their technological convergence, carrier-based (LTE/5G) and unlicensed (Wi-Fi) wireless systems are, and will remain, dramatically different in terms of cost, infrastructure layout, and the level of administrative control they provide to enterprise network operators. These factors will determine how enterprises plan to maintain and grow their wireless capabilities.

Wireless Inside the Campus and the Branch

Wi-Fi 6 provides improvements in speed and latency, and supports a higher density of connected devices. Combined with its reasonable cost to deploy and maintain, it will prove an ideal system for indoor wireless connectivity – especially in areas where access points will serve more users.

Users on Wi-Fi 6 devices will see improved individual experiences. People in crowded areas that have traditionally offered hit-or-miss performance (waiting rooms, student lecture halls, meeting spaces, and so on), will have better experiences. Some devices that previously would only be connected by wired Ethernet will be able to move to wireless. This will help drive innovation around high-bandwidth and latency-sensitive use cases that should really be untethered, like AR/VR, gaming, and video communications.

As the number of performance-sensitive wireless devices goes up, enterprises will need new network intelligence to assure the best levels of service. Specifically, Cisco believes that Wi-Fi 6 access points, and end devices themselves, must become sensors, collecting real-time performance and experience data that they stream to a new generation of analytic engines. This will allow for proactive and granular management of these increasingly complex environments.

While for some enterprise installations and indoor use cases it will make sense to extend 5G or LTE into the interior space with Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), or with interior 5G access points (“microcells”), this remains an expensive proposition. LTE and 5G radio chipsets are dramatically more expensive than Wi-Fi, and we do not anticipate this changing.  Additionally, most enterprises have an exponentially increasing number of devices they need to keep online; paying a monthly fee for connectivity per device would be cost-prohibitive.

Wi-Fi networks also provide a rich vein of analytics information to the enterprise. Businesses can gather extremely rich data about their facilities by tracking how Wi-Fi devices move through them. This information is going to change how businesses optimize the use of their physical locations.

5G for Connecting Campus and Branch

5G will have a great impact on branches and campuses as a backhaul service.  Keeping an enterprise’s branch and campus locations all connected to each other and the Internet has traditionally fallen to wired technologies like T1/E1 and xDSL; today, 4G is often used to quickly bring up sites, or as a back-up link, but it’s seldom used as a primary link, due to bandwidth limitations and cost.

But 5G is much faster than 4G. It can be used to augment or, in some scenarios, replace a wired connection. And with contemporary SD-WAN tools, it’s simple to deploy 5G in parallel with other WAN services – even across thousands of sites.

Moreover, wireless links make sense for businesses that rely on having robust, always-on connectivity to their branch offices, and for businesses that rely on cloud services. That is to say: nearly all businesses. Wireless backhaul links can’t be cut, and wireless infrastructure is often the first communications service restored after a disaster like a major storm. Using 5G to augment existing WAN services allows sites to have maximum uptime for their cloud-based services, and, when it’s managed with SD-WAN and used alongside links that are bandwidth-constrained , it can enhance the overall application experience too.

For even more bandwidth, 5G has frequency extensions into high-frequency millimeter wave bands, which offer significantly higher throughput. These high-frequency bands do not easily reach indoor spaces, but carriers can quickly set up external, line-of-site antennas to provide dedicated, high-speed connectivity at competitive prices.

Wireless and IoT

Both Wi-Fi 6 and 5G offer exciting opportunities to connect more devices reliably via wireless.  They share scheduling technology that makes wireless more deterministic, which is important for mission-critical IoT assets being used in manufacturing automation, healthcare, energy, and many other industries. Wireless technologies enable new use cases, and businesses that lean heavily on wireless will find it easier to accelerate their digitization initiatives.

Wi-Fi 6 APs will also increasingly include additional radios, like Bluetooth and Zigbee, which will make them more capable IoT gateways — and useful wireless sensors. They’ll be to help track and manage IoT devices through their entire lifecycle.

A particularly interesting extension of LTE (and later, 5G), called CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service), holds a lot of promise as a complimentary technology to Wi-Fi 6 for use inside  buildings.  CBRS relies on spectrum in the 3.5Ghz range that is not used by WiFi or existing LTE/5G services in the U.S., so it’s unlikely to be interfered with by general-access consumer devices. Some initial CBRS capabilities are rolling out in products shortly.  For devices, like robots, that need guaranteed connectivity as well as mobility, CBRS will be a great compliment to W-Fi 6. Most businesses using CBRS will use it together with Wi-Fi 6.

When we discuss mission-critical IoT programs, we also need to keep security top of mind. Many IoT devices are both highly critical to business, and highly vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, a modern network can help make an IoT-rich environment more secure in several ways. In particular, it can limit potential for malware to spread from device to device, by using software-defined segmentation to ensure that network traffic from a particular device cannot be sent where it’s not supposed to be. Segmentation policies can span wired and wireless networks, as well as ruggedized environments.

Tying Wireless Networks Together 

5G and Wifi6 will eventually be deployed together in the enterprise. It will be an evolving challenge to manage these separate access technologies as integrated systems – with unified policy, security, and analytics. Users and devices will need to move between 5G and Wi-Fi 6 systems, and the smart IT leader will want the experience to be seamless and easy to manage at scale. Orchestrating the management systems of these separate networks is our next frontier. Watch out for more to come on this aspect.

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Scott Harrell

Senior Vice President and General Manager

Enterprise Networking Business