ANALYSIS BY ZEUS KERRAVALA
WiFi has been the de facto standard for wireless communications for decades, but over the past couple of years, it has come under fire from the 5G community, which has been predicting that the next evolutionary step in cellular wireless is a threat to WiFi.
In fact, this thesis recently got a shot in the arm at Dell Technology World, when during his keynote VMware Chief Executive Pat Gelsinger made the bold prediction that “5G will displace WiFi globally.” Could this actually be true?
Some in the venture capital community seem to agree. Today Celona Networks, a manufacturer of private 5G infrastructure geared toward the enterprise, announced it has closed a $30 million series B round of funding. It was led by NTT Venture Capital and Qualcomm Ventures with participation from Celona’s initial investors, Lightspeed Venture Partners, Norwest Venture Partners and Cervin Ventures. The round brings Celona’s total capital raised to $40 million.
For those that follow the venture community, these are big-name VCs. I was a bit surprised by the list of investors, since a couple of them have told me they would only invest in cloud and software companies. And even though much of Celona’s value comes from software, the company does make hardware.
I believe they were willing to bend on the “no hardware” edict because 5G has a legitimate shot at disrupting business WiFi. Anyone who uses WiFi, even at home, knows how flaky it can be at times. Don’t get me wrong, the WiFi manufacturers have done everything they can to make WiFi as reliable as possible, but problems occur when unlicensed spectrum is used.
An interesting observation of cellular versus WiFi that supports 5G is that much of the innovation that has been brought into WiFi to fix some of the issues has come from the cellular industry. Multi-user MIMO and OFDMA are just a couple of examples of features that have made WiFi more like cellular. So if the aim is to make WiFi more like 5G, why not just use 5G?
In the past, I’ve been a skeptic of 5G replacing WiFi, not because the technology doesn’t work or the need isn’t there, but because there wasn’t an enterprise-focused provider that would make the deployment simple and “WiFi like.” Most of the “5G replacing WiFi” rhetoric obviously has been coming from the mobile operators such as Verizon and AT&T. Although these companies certainly have nationwide networks and can bring 5G into businesses, I don’t believe they will be successful.
One of the reasons is that the enterprise network is now mission-critical and the foundation for digital organizations. Companies are shifting applications to the cloud at an unprecedented rate and the number of “internet of things” devices is exploding. The traditional telcos haven’t exactly endeared themselves to enterprises, since their track record of service is poor to fair. Handing over the wireless network to one of these companies seems like a big leap of faith and one that has far more risk than reward.
A bigger issue is data ownership. When a network operator sells a service to a business, it owns the data. If the business wants to analyze the data, it must then buy its own data back. Network data has become a critical asset for digital businesses for use cases ranging from inventory management to customer experience and, most recently, contact tracing. The ability to take WiFi data and slice and dice it a hundred ways is one of the big appeals of WiFi. If the 5G operators are going to be serious enterprise vendors, this problem must be resolved.
Another group of solution providers that have an eye on 5G in the enterprise are the makers of carrier-grade 5G equipment, such as Nokia and Ericsson. In theory, this makes sense, but their products and services are aimed at the needs of network operators and not businesses.
Consider the wireline market, where a company like Juniper had a tremendous amount of success selling into service providers but couldn’t really crack the enterprise market until it created a set of products and services that was optimized for the enterprise. Also, it had to develop relationships with value-added resellers, distributors, systems integrators and other channel partners to create the scale to reach companies all across the globe.
If 5G is to make a dent in WiFi, the industry needs a company such as Celona — a company that’s building 5G infrastructure specifically for the needs of the enterprise. It’s using the new Citizens Broadband Radio Service or CBRS spectrum in the U.S. to deliver in building 5G network services that deployed and is managed similarly to the way enterprise WiFi is. The capital from its new round will be used to fuel its growth in the business market.
I want to be clear here too that I don’t think 5G is going to come in and kill off WiFi overnight. Technology cycles don’t work that way. Voice over IP was far superior to time-division multiplexing and there’s still a lot of older equipment out there.
The cloud has many clear advantages over on-premises apps, but there’s still a massive installed base of the latter. The most likely scenario for 5G in the enterprise is for it to be used for mission-critical systems where WiFi currently is not. That would include manufacturing, healthcare and critical IoT systems.
Also, WiFi will remain the predominant network in carpeted offices because laptops are primarily WiFi only. The few that are on the market with integrated WiFi tend to be fairly expensive in comparison. For example, the Lenovo Yoga 5G laptop has a hefty price tag of around $1,500.
However, once 5G does make its way into businesses in a small way, I would expect to see it also make its way into other parts of the organization. In addition, the price of 5G laptops will eventually fall as volumes go up and when that happens, companies will likely “salt and pepper” the access points and have a mixed 5G/WiFi environment.
The promise of in-building cellular as an alternative to WiFi has certainly been around for years, but the market dynamics weren’t quite right. Celona is the first enterprise-focused 5G provider to come to market, but I don’t expect it to be the last. This will be one of the major networking trends to watch come 2021 and beyond.
Zeus Kerravala is a principal analyst at ZK Research, a division of Kerravala Consulting. He wrote this article for SiliconANGLE.