New Opportunities for Enterprise Mobility Require a Different Mindset
The ‘Wireless Decade’, one of the major stories in tech during the 2010s, was primarily a consumer-driven phenomenon. Yes, smartphones and mobile apps helped change the way companies do business, but there weren’t substantial changes to enterprise infrastructure to support mobile (other than Wi-Fi). For enterprises, the world post-Blackberry revolved around developing the policy and security framework to support Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs. From an infrastructure perspective, enterprises continued to upgrade Wi-Fi networks, but the vaunted ‘in-building’ wireless market never really took off.
But if the 2010s were about consumer mobility, the 2020s are going to be much more enterprise-centric. Three major developments will require enterprises to re-think their existing communications infrastructure, and, over time, present entirely new categories of opportunity.
- Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). This new generation of Wi-Fi is just starting to roll out. We include it in our ‘mobility’ framework because Wi-Fi 6 overcomes some of the historic shortcomings of Wi-Fi compared to cellular: it does a much better job at handling interference; can support much greater capacity; supports many more devices; and has greater range. Companies looking to enhance or upgrade their in-building communications infrastructure will look at Wi-Fi 6 in addition to some of the evolving cellular alternatives, such as Private LTE and, eventually, 5G. I don’t see it as a zero-sum game. Wi-Fi 6 will be part of the mix.
- Private LTE. Private LTE (PLTE) is a local cellular network that includes cell sites and core network servers dedicated to supporting the connectivity of a specific organization’s requirements. It can be independent of service provider networks or use an SP network as an anchor. PLTE uses dedicated, shared, or public spectrum. In the United States, PLTE is typically being deployed using the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum, which is just now becoming commercially available. As an example, the new American Dream mall in New Jersey has deployed a PLTE network, which provides significantly better cellular connectivity and also displaces some Wi-Fi infrastructure. Private LTE also provides an opportunity for enterprises to provide connectivity in locations/situations where Wi-Fi might be either unfeasible or not economically viable.
- 5G. Some of the capabilities of 5G — which are not embodied in this Phase 1/Enhanced Mobile Broadband era — will be game-changing for enterprise connectivity. Ultra-reliable low latency (URLLC), Massive IoT, edge computing, significantly enhanced location/positioning, among other features, will start becoming commercially available in 2021-2022. It is here that significant opportunities will be created. 5G will be a key driver of Industry 4.0 initiatives in manufacturing, the evolution to autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and so on. Not right away, but over the course of the decade.
Rather than being mutually exclusive, these connectivity options are very much intertwined. However, I believe these opportunities will require enterprises to rethink how they approach mobility (broadly defined).
First, the nature of the enterprise-service provider (SP) relationship will have to be rethought. SPs such as Verizon and AT&T are not going to foot the bill for the millions of small cells and other associated infrastructure that will have to be installed at enterprise facilities. It’s interesting how differently enterprises look at cellular compared to Wi-Fi. For cellular, they expect the SP (or other entity) to install the “equipment”, and then they pay per-device connectivity fees. This is primarily an operational expense (opex). By contrast, Wi-Fi is more of a capital expenditure, (routers and so on), but then there aren’t the same types of connectivity fees.
With Private LTE and 5G, a different framework will be needed. Enterprises will have to be prepared to pay for some significant share of the infrastructure. The nature of connectivity fees will also change, resembling more the edge/cloud model that has evolved for webscale services. Discussions between enterprises and service providers will have to become very different than they are today.
Second, I believe this new era of mobile connectivity provides an opportunity for an entirely new cadre of solutions providers to become involved in the enterprise mobility discussion. Wireless operators are accustomed to selling connectivity plans, rather than broad-based solutions that require a mix of equipment and services. The leading SPs are building the capabilities and teams to be able to have those conversations, but it’s still early stage. This is also much more the bailiwick of larger SPs, such as Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile, as an example has only nascent capabilities to support enterprise solutions.
A new raft of companies will also have to be part of the solutions discussion. VARs and SIs, for example, have typically been involved more in telecom/Internet/Wi-Fi solutions than they have in cellular. Big Tech and cloud/edge computing firms will also be part of the mix. This is a huge opportunity for firms such as Cisco, IBM, VMware, Amazon, and so on.
We’re already seeing some of this positioning. During 2019, Commscope acquired Arris (and with it Ruckus), while there were major cloud/edge computing partnerships signed between Verizon and AWS and between AT&T and Microsoft. The ability for both enterprises and service providers to evolve their thinking about connectivity will be a major determinant of when, and to what extent, the capabilities of Wi-Fi 6, Private LTE, and 5G are fully harnessed.