Convergence, coexistence or competition: How will 5G and Wi-Fi 6 interact?

Introduction: Wi-Fi vs cellular

The debate around Wi-Fi and cellular convergence is not new. However, the introduction of next generation mobile and cellular technologies, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G, has once again reignited this debate. Further impetus for discussion has been provided by industry bodies, including the Wi-Fi Alliance, IEEE, Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) and 3GPP, developing standards to enable the convergence between 5G and Wi-Fi.

5G, introduced by 3GPP’s release 15 in 2018, and deployed internationally by telecoms operators since 2019, is considered a significant upgrade to 4G and LTE. Its improved capabilities such as increased speed, coverage, reliability, and security promise to enable a host of new use cases in a wide range of industries.

Simultaneously, Wi-Fi has evolved into its 6th generation, with Wi-Fi 6 technology emerging in 2019. This new evolution of Wi-Fi can provide speeds that are 40% higher than its predecessor, as well as improved visibility and transparency for better network control and management. Some of the key enhancements of the new generation are detailed in the table below.

Figure 1: There are a number of key differences between next generation Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity

key-differences-next-generation-wifi-cellular-activity

Source: STL Partners

The market context for convergence

Industry bodies have been promoting convergence

The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) and the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) produced a joint report in 2021 promoting the future convergence between Wi-Fi and 5G. The report highlights the merits of convergence, noting a number of use cases and verticals that could stand to benefit from closer alignment between the two technologies. Further, the 3GPP have increasingly sought to include standards with each new release that enable convergence between Wi-Fi and cellular. 3GPP’s release 8 introduced the concept of ‘access network discovery and selection function’ (ANDSF) which allowed user equipment to discover non-3GPP access networks, including Wi-Fi. In 2018, release 15 included optional 3GPP access for native 5G services via these non 3GPP access networks. Most recently, release 16 introduced ‘access traffic steering, splitting and switching’ (ATSSS), allowing both 3GPP and non-3GPP connectivity to multiple access networks, which is a key enabler of the resilience model of convergence. Similarly, the IEEE, sponsored by the Wi-Fi Alliance has been discussing the potential pathways to convergence for a number of years. However, these bodies are less vocal about future convergence possibilities, likely given Wi-Fi’s current dominance in the provision of enterprise wireless connectivity.

Spectrum auctions

The possibility of convergence has been further supported in recent years by releases of spectrum in the 6GHz band for unlicensed use in the USA, UK, South Korea and other major markets. Spectrum in the same 6GHz range can also be used to support 5G connectivity in addition to the existing 5GHz band. With the ability to share the same spectrum, this could theoretically promote closer coupling of 5G and Wi-Fi. However, given similar propagation characteristics for each technology, it remains to be proven as to whether the increasing availability of spectrum will help to push convergence forward.

There is a disconnect between theory and practice

While standards define what is possible, the purpose of industry bodies is to be future-focused, paving the way for the rest of the ecosystem to follow. What is possible in theory must be supported in practice, and the supply-side ecosystem, including network operators, system integrators (SIs), network equipment providers (NEPs) and hardware manufacturers have a role to play if convergence is to become more widespread.

Similarly, for devices to access converged networks, they must be equipped with 5G and Wi-Fi chips. While mobile phones support both connectivity types, the vast majority of connected devices that enterprises deploy are Wi-Fi only. Until 5G chips or modules become more widely available, and used in a greater number of devices, convergence will likely remain relegated to specific use cases. For example, use cases that depend on the mobility afforded by being able to ‘switch over’ from Wi-Fi to mobile seamlessly, or highly mission critical use cases in verticals such as manufacturing that can justify the investment in (private) 5G as a back-up to Wi-Fi. We discuss both of these use cases in more detail in the report. The full ecosystem must ultimately work in concert for convergence to become a realistic possibility for a larger number of enterprises.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Convergence is still immature on both the demand and supply sides
    • What do we mean by co-existence, convergence and competition?
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The market context for convergence
    • Industry bodies have been promoting convergence
    • Spectrum auctions
    • There is a disconnect between theory and practice
    • There are two key use cases for convergence
  • A future trend towards convergence is still immature
    • Regional differences in the maturity of 5G
    • Inconsistent definitions
    • Who manages convergence?
  • It is still too early to see high levels of demand for convergence from enterprise customers
    • Wi-Fi is the incumbent, 5G must overcome a number of barriers before it can become a genuine partner or alternative
    • Decisions regarding convergence are driven by industry characteristics
    • Supply side players must educate enterprise customers about convergence (if they believe it is beneficial to the enterprise)
  • Conclusion

Related research

Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities

For the report chart pack download the additional file on the left

5G is catalysing demand for customisation

The arrival of 5G has catalysed a huge amount of interest in enterprise, government and “vertical” use-cases for cellular networks. Cellular technology is becoming ever more important and applicable for businesses, for diverse use-cases from factory automation, to better hospitality guest-services, to replacement of legacy two-way radios.

Some of this fits in with STL’s view of the Coordination Age, and the shift towards connectivity becoming part of wider, society-level or economy-level applications and solutions. However, in many ways it is more of an evolution of traditional enterprise use of private wireless solutions, but updated with newer and more-performant 5G radios. The future battleground is whether such coordination requires external services (and thus SPs), or whether the capabilities are best-delivered in-house on private networks.

For various reasons of cost, performance, accountability or guaranteed coverage, there is a drive towards greater customisation and control, often beyond that currently deliverable by traditional MNOs.

However, there is significant confusion between three things:

  • Mobile network services and applications sold to, or used by, industrial and enterprise customers
  • Mobile networks optimised, extended or virtualised for industrial and enterprise requirements
  • Mobile networks built exclusively for, or owned by, industrial companies and other enterprises

This report is a joint exercise between STL Partners and affiliate Disruptive Analysis, which has covered this sector in depth for almost 20 years. Its founder Dean Bubley runs workshops on private cellular and neutral-host networks, as well as undertaking private projects and speaking engagements advising operators, vendors, regulators and investors on business models, spectrum policy and market dynamics.

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report

var MostRecentReportExtractAccess = “Most_Recent_Report_Extract_Access”;
var AllReportExtractAccess = “All_Report_Extract_Access”;
var formUrl = “https://go.stlpartners.com/l/859343/2022-02-16/dg485”;
var title = encodeURI(document.title);
var pageURL = encodeURI(document.location.href);
document.write(‘‘);

What is a private mobile network?

This report primarily focuses on the third category – private mobile networks – although there is some overlap with the second, especially when techniques like network-slicing enter the discussion. There are different models of “private” too – from completely standalone networks that are entirely isolated from public mobile networks, to ones which use some dedicated infrastructure / management, alongside shared radio- or core-network elements provided by an MNO. They can be nationwide networks (for example, for utility grids), or highly localised, such as to a factory or hotel.

There are also various hybrids and nuances of all of this, such as private networks where certain functions are installed by, outsourced to, or managed by, telcos. It may be possible for users or devices to roam between private and public networks, for instance when a truck leaves a logistics facility with a local private network, and switches to the telco while it’s on the road.

Various government bodies – ranging from police forces to local council authorities – are also interested in creating private or shared 4G / 5G networks. Over the next 3-4 years, we can expect a wide diversity of approaches, and some very vague and fluid definitions from the industry.

Three building blocks for private networks

There are three main enablers (and numerous secondary drivers) behind the private network concept:

  • Availability of spectrum
  • Small cells and distributed radios
  • The move from 4G to 5G

A critical element in this is access to suitable spectrum for creating private networks. In recent years, many governments and regulatory authorities have started to make localised mobile licences available, suitable for covering enterprise sites, or wider areas such as cities. While private Wi-Fi and other networks have long been created with (free) unlicensed spectrum, this does not give the protections against contention and interference that more formal licensing enables. Other localised spectrum licenses have been given for point-to-point fixed links, temporary outside broadcast & events, or other purposes – but not cellular networks for normal mobile users. There are also discussions ongoing about making more national or wide-area spectrum available, suitable for mobile use in certain specialised verticals such as utilities.

Small cells and other types of enterprise-grade radio network (RAN) equipment are critical building- blocks for private mobile infrastructure, particularly indoors or on small/medium campus sites. They need to be low-cost, easy to install and operate, and ideally integrated with other IT and networking systems. While small cells have been around for 20 years or more, they have often been hard to deploy and manage. We are also seeing further innovation around distributed/cloud RAN which further increases the options for campus and in-building coverage systems.

5G – or more accurately the 5G era – changes the game in a number of ways. Firstly, IoT use-cases are becoming far more important, especially as analogue equipment and business processes become more connected and intelligent. Secondly, 5G brings new technical challenges, especially around the use of higher-frequency spectrum that struggles to go through walls – which highlights the paradox of telcos providing public network services on private property. Finally, with the advent of cloud-based and virtualised functions such as core networks, it is becoming easier to deploy and operate smaller infrastructures.

Some of the specialised skills requirements for building/running cellular networks can be reduced with automation, although this is still a significant obstacle for enterprises. This will drive significant demand for new tiers and types of managed services provider for private cellular – some of which will be satisfied by telcos, but which will also targeted by many others from towerco’s to systems integrators to cloud/Internet players.

It is worth stressing that this concept is not new. Private cellular networks have existed in small niches for 10-20 years. Railways have a dedicated version of 2G called GSM-R. Military squads and disaster- response teams can carry small localised base stations and controllers in their vehicles or even backpacks. Remote mines or oil-exploration sites have private wireless networks of various types. The author of this report first saw cellular small-cells in 2000, and worked on projects around enterprise adoption of private 2G as early as 2005.

Private and vertical cellular networks: Threats and opportunities aims to clarify the concept of “private” networks. It explores the domain of business-focused cellular networks, where the enterprise has some degree of ownership or control over the infrastructure – and, sometimes, the radio network itself. The report then sets out the motivations and use cases for private networks, as well as the challenges and obstacles faced.

This report is a joint exercise between STL Partners and affiliate Disruptive Analysis, which has covered this sector in depth for almost 20 years. Its founder Dean Bubley runs workshops on private cellular and neutral-host networks, as well as undertaking private projects and speaking engagements advising operators, vendors, regulators and investors on business models, spectrum policy and market dynamics. Please see deanbubley.com or @disruptivedean on Twitter for details and inquiries.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Public vs. non-public networks
    • Private network vs. private MVNO vs. slices
  • Motivations & use-cases for private networks
    • Business drivers for private cellular
    • Technical use-cases for private cellular
    • Industrial sites & IIoT
    • Enterprise/public in-building coverage
    • Neutral host networks (NHN)
    • Fixed 4G / 5G networks
  • Regulatory & spectrum issues
    • Other regulatory considerations
  • Building private networks – technology
    • Architectural choices, technology standards & industry bodies
  • The emerging private networks value chain
  • Conclusions & Recommendations
    • How large is the private network opportunity?
    • Challenges and obstacles for private networks
    • What is the implication for traditional telcos and MNOs?
    • Telcos’ relationship to project scope

Enter your details below to request an extract of the report

var MostRecentReportExtractAccess = “Most_Recent_Report_Extract_Access”;
var AllReportExtractAccess = “All_Report_Extract_Access”;
var formUrl = “https://go.stlpartners.com/l/859343/2022-02-16/dg485”;
var title = encodeURI(document.title);
var pageURL = encodeURI(document.location.href);
document.write(‘‘);

Disruptive Strategy: ‘Uncarrier’ T-Mobile vs. AT&T, VZW, and Free.fr

Introduction

Ever since the original Softbank bid for Sprint-Nextel, the industry has been awaiting a wave of price disruption in the United States, the world’s biggest and richest mobile market, and one which is still very much dominated by the dynamic duo, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility.

Figure 1: The US, a rich and high-spending market

The US a rich and high-spending market

Source: Onavo, Ofcom, CMT, BNETZA, TIA, KCC, Telco accounts, STL Partners

However, the Sprint-Softbank deal saga delayed any aggressive move by Sprint for some time, and in the meantime T-Mobile USA stole a march, implemented its own very similar ‘uncarrier’ proposition strategy, and achieved a dramatic turnaround of their customer numbers.

As Figure 2 shows, the duopoly marches on, with Verizon in the lead, although the gap with AT&T has closed a little lately. Sprint, meanwhile, looks moribund, while T-Mobile has closed half the gap with the duopolists in an astonishingly short period of time.

Figure 2: The duopolists hold a lead, but a new challenger arises…

The duopolists hold a lead but a new challenger arises
Source: STL Partners

Now, a Sprint-T-Mobile merger is seriously on the cards. Again, Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son is on record as promising to launch a price war. But to what extent is a Free Mobile-like disruption event already happening? And what strategies are carriers adopting?

For more STL analysis of the US cellular market, read the original Sprint-Softbank EB , the Telco 2.0 Transformation Index sections on Verizon  and AT&T , and our Self-Disruption: How Sprint Blew It EB . Additional coverage of the fixed domain can be found in the Triple-Play in the USA: Infrastructure Pays Off EB  and the Telco 2.0 Index sections mentioned above

The US Market is Changing

In our previous analysis Self-Disruption: How Sprint Blew It, we used the following chart, Figure 3, under the title “…And ARPU is Holding Up”. Updating it with the latest data, it becomes clear that ARPU – and in this case pricing – is no longer holding up so well. Rather than across-the-board deflation, though, we are instead seeing increasingly diverse strategies.

Figure 3: US carriers are pursuing diverse pricing strategies, faced with change

US carriers are pursuing diverse pricing strategies, faced with change

Source: STL Partners

AT&T’s ARPU is being very gradually eroded (it’s come down by $5 since Q1 2011), while Sprint’s plunged sharply with the shutdown of Nextel (see report referenced above for more detail). Since then, AT&T and Sprint have been close to parity, a situation AT&T management surely can’t be satisfied with. T-Mobile USA has slashed prices so much that the “uncarrier” has given up $10 of monthly ARPU since the beginning of 2012. And Verizon Wireless has added almost as much monthly ARPU in the same timeframe.

Each carrier has adopted a different approach in this period:

  • T-Mobile has gone hell-for-leather after net adds at any price.
  • AT&T has tried to compete with T-Mobile’s price slashing by offering more hardware and bigger bundles and matching T-Mobile’s eye-catching initiatives, while trying to hold the line on headline pricing, perhaps hoping to limit the damage and wait for Deutsche Telekom to tire of the spending. For example, AT&T recently increased its device activation fee by $4, citing the increased number of smartphone activations under its early-upgrade plan. This does not appear in service-ARPU or in headline pricing, but it most certainly does contribute to revenue, and even more so, to margin.
  • Verizon Wireless has declined to get involved in the price war, and has concentrated on maintaining its status as a premium brand, selling on coverage, speed, and capacity. As the above chart shows, this effort to achieve network differentiation has met with a considerable degree of success.
  • Sprint, meanwhile, is responding tactically with initiatives like its “Framily” tariff, while sorting out the network, but is mostly just suffering. The sharp drop in mid-2012 is a signature of high-value SMB customers fleeing the shutdown of Nextel, as discussed in Self-Disruption: How Sprint Blew It.

Figure 4: Something went wrong at Sprint in mid-2012

Something went wrong at Sprint in mid-2012

Source: STL Partners, Sprint filings

 

  • Executive Summary
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • The US Market is Changing
  • Where are the Customers Coming From?
  • Free Mobile: A Warning from History?
  • T-Mobile, the Expensive Disruptor
  • Handset subsidy: it’s not going anywhere
  • Summarising change in the US and French cellular markets
  • Conclusions

 

  • Figure 1: The US, a rich and high-spending market
  • Figure 2: The duopolists hold a lead, but a new challenger arises…
  • Figure 3: US carriers are pursuing diverse pricing strategies, faced with change
  • Figure 4: Something went wrong at Sprint in mid-2012
  • Figure 5: US subscriber net-adds by source
  • Figure 6: The impact of disruption – prices fall across the board
  • Figure 7: Free’s spectacular growth in subscribers – but who was losing out?
  • Figure 8: The main force of Free Mobile’s disruption didn’t fall on the carriers
  • Figure 9: Disruption in France primarily manifested itself in subscriber growth, falling ARPU, and the death of the MVNOs
  • Figure 10: T-Mobile has so far extended $3bn of credit to its smartphone customers
  • Figure 11: T-Mobile’s losses on device sales are large and increasing, driven by smartphone volumes
  • Figure 12: Size and profitability still go together in US mobile – although this conceals a lot of change below the surface
  • Figure 13: Fully-developed disruption, in France
  • Figure 14: Quality beats quantity. Sprint repeatedly outspent VZW on its network