One of the things that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately is private 5G. Yesterday, I received three separate communiqués about it. Today, two more, one addressing monetizing in the CBRS band, the other addressing vertical opportunities for the carriers.
An interesting observation is that organizations carriers support and that are supported by them, such as WIA, GSM and CTIA, seem to be the more visible ones putting out this information, perhaps trying to make the case for carrier-supported private wireless. Could it be that these players are seeing the potential challenge from unlicensed platforms and starting to do some damage control? Certainly, a question worth pondering.
This is a hot topic for the immediate future, and once it finds equilibrium, will be a significant component of the next generation wireless ecosystem. Not just as a platform, but as a disruptive technology in the comm space, especially once we have expanded the mmWave segment.
In one of my more recent columns, I talked about the fact that the telcos may not end up being the sole or even primary provider of private 5G. By that, I mean they being the ones to provide the spectrum and reap financial rewards or even provide the unlicensed services.
What is challenging them is the potential of unlicensed 5G spectrum and the next generations of Wi-Fi. 6 and 6E are happening, but they do not challenge 5G in performance. Wi-Fi 7, on the other hand, is another story. This is where much of the enterprise is looking.
So, are unlicensed private networks all the rage? Will they take business away from the carriers? It is worth discussing, especially the challenge from Wi-Fi 7.
There are two main issues here – cost and performance. Let us unpack them.
Cost – it would seem this is a no-brainer, but it is not. The costs are not linear, in a sense. By that, I mean that the cost is not just for setting up the network. With carrier-provided networks some of the costs and exclusive features, such as interference mitigation, are built-in.
A carrier-provided private 5G network can be turnkey with the carrier doing all the work. Of course, the customer pays for all of that, and it can be expensive, depending on the size and how tight the specs are for the network. Another big plus is the limitations of private networks (power, adjacent protocols, performance limits) are eliminated with carrier-grade networks.
On the other hand, many enterprises already have a competent IT department that is familiar with wireless networks. For them, it may make sense to explore the self-management options. Additionally, many private networks may not need the bleeding edge, carrier-managed offers.
As well, there are in-betweeners. The bottom line is that there are options. In the end, it will be a tradeoff of costs.
Performance – We are all aware that 5G, once it meets full specs, will be a wireless platform on steroids. The three horsemen (in this case) of the 5G apocalypse are bandwidth, latency and dynamic spectrum management.
However, charging hard is Wi-Fi 7. One would think that, since it is not expected (in its final version) until sometime in 2024, the carriers have a few years to get their act together. While that may be an argument that they can use to sell their product, it is not a cut and dried as it may seem.
First of all, we already have Wi-Fi 6 and 6E. Both of these have significant performance gains over Wi-Fi 5. While there are no statistics that I am aware of on the enterprise upgrade path to Wi-Fi 6, it certainly is on the minds of some of them (at least according to my insignificant minute sampling). It is not unreasonable to expect that Wi-Fi 6 may have sufficient performance improvement for many use cases.
However, Wi-Fi 7 is hardly standing still. The upgrade path from Wi-Fi 6 was part of the evolution of Wi-Fi 6 to seven, and a fair amount of the developing technologies can be implemented in existing Wi-Fi 6 networks (see the timeline below).
Next are the technical specs. 5G is supposed to offer unimaginable performance – up to 4 Gbps in the mmWave spectrum under ideal conditions. For the next few years, until Wi-Fi 7 debuts, in the sub-6 GHz bands speeds will cap out at 400 Mbps (again under ideal conditions) with half that being a realistic target for some time.
mmWave is several years out for any commercial installations, so expect early speeds to cap at a gig or less (still, this is nothing to sneeze at).
The killer spec is latency. One millisecond, or less, is promised, eventually, but that also is years out, except perhaps for specialized applications. Even then, the real number is likely to be closer to 10 ms, under ideal conditions.
However, this spec is somewhat nebulous in a couple of ways. First of all, to hit any type of really low latency requires the network to be fully optimized, with all advanced hardware running on SA. That is not likely to happen for some time. Second, just how important low latency will be for the many use cases is still not well defined.
Additionally, there are new (or evolved) coding, modulation, timing, etc. schemes in the standalone (SA) version. These are the tweaking components that will allow 5G to leapfrog 4G’s specifications.
On the Wi-Fi 7 side, the specs are impressive. While not nearly as top-end as 5G, for many applications, they are more than sufficient. Also, Wi-Fi is more flexible in its specifications (a wider set for more applications). And, no doubt, Wi-Fi 7 will give way to Wi-Fi 8 … 9 … 10 … .
One thing I did not mention earlier is that carriers have the option to integrate Wi-Fi and 5G. That, too, is still in the early stages of development in the 5G space and has not been widely adopted in 4G. So, it has yet to be seen how that will play out. But with the uptick in advanced Wi-Fi, that may become another solution carriers can offer.
The fitness-for-purpose game, as both 5G and Wi-Fi evolve, will be interesting. Who will play where is still a fairly open field. That will only accelerate, once Wi-Fi 7 is GA.
Still, carriers are notorious for missing the bus or calling it wrong. Are they coming around to seeing what the crystal ball is presenting? There are signs. But the rest of the technologies are going to stand still, waiting for them to develop their models. My hope is that it does not turn into a Wi-Fi vs. 5G competition.
Ernest Worthman is an executive editor with AGL Media Group.