Enterprise Wi-Fi 6/7 is here to stay: 5G is not enough

Overview of Wi-Fi 6/7 for enterprises

This report is not a traditional analyst report on Wi-Fi covering market segments, shares and forecasts. Numerous peer organisations have a long tradition of quantitative marketing modelling and prediction; we are not intending to compete with them. For illustration purposes, we have used a couple of charts with the kind permission of Chris DePuy from 650 Group presented at a recent Wi-Fi Now conference, during a joint panel session with the author of this report.

Instead, this report looks more at the strategic issues around Wi-Fi and the enterprise – and the implications and recommendations for CIOs and network architects in corporate user organisations, opportunities for different types of CSPs, important points for policymakers and regulators, plus a preview of the most important technical innovations likely to emerge in the next few years. There may be some differences in stance or opinion compared to certain other STL reports.

The key themes covered in this report are:

  • Background to enterprise Wi-Fi: key uses, channels and market trends
  • Understanding “Wi-Fi for verticals”
  • Decoding the changes and new capabilities that come with Wi-Fi 6, 6E and 7
  • How and where public and private 5G overlaps or competes with Wi-Fi
  • CSP opportunities in enterprise Wi-Fi
  • Wi-Fi and regulation – and the importance of network diversity.

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Wi-Fi’s background and history

Today, most readers will first think of Wi-Fi as prevalent in the home and across consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, TVs, game consoles and smart speakers. In total, there are over 18 billion Wi-Fi devices in use, with perhaps 3-4bn new products shipping annually.

Yet the history of Wi-Fi – and its underlying IEEE802.11 technology standards – is anchored in the enterprise.

The earliest incarnations of “wireless ethernet” in the 1990s were in sectors like warehousing and retail, connecting devices such as barcode scanners and point-of-sale terminals. Early leaders around 2000-2005 were companies such as Symbol, Proxim, 3Com and Lucent, supplying both industrial applications and (via chunky plug-in “PCMCIA” cards) laptops, mostly used by corporate employees.

During the 2003-2010 period, Wi-Fi exploded for both enterprises and (with the help of Apple and Intel) consumer laptops, and eventually early smartphones based on Windows and Symbian OS’s, then later iOS and Android.

The corporate world in “carpeted offices” started deploying more dedicated, heavyweight switched systems designed for dense networks of workers at desks, in meeting rooms and in cubicles. Venue Wi-Fi grew quickly as well, with full coverage becoming critical in locations such as airports and hotels, both for visitors and for staff and some connected IT systems. A certain amount of outdoor Wi-Fi was deployed, especially for city centres, but gained little traction as it coincided with broader coverage (and falling costs) of cellular data.

A new breed of enterprise Wi-Fi vendors emerged – and then quickly became consolidated by major networking and IT providers. This has occurred in several waves over the last 20 years. Cisco bought Airespace (and later Meraki and others), Juniper bought Trapeze and Mist Systems, and HP (later HPE) acquired Aruba. There has also been some telecom-sector acquisitions of Wi-Fi vendors, with Commscope acquiring Ruckus, and Ericsson buying BelAir.

While telcos have had some important roles in public or guest Wi-Fi deployments, including working with enterprises in sectors such as cafes, retail, and transport, they have had far less involvement with Wi-Fi deployed privately in enterprise offices, warehouses, factories, and similar sites. For the most part that has been integrated with the wired LAN infrastructure and broader IT domain, overseen by corporate IT/network teams and acquired via a broad array of channels and systems integrators. For industrial applications, many solution providers integrate Wi-Fi (and other wireless mechanisms) directly into machinery and automation equipment.

Looking to the future, enterprise Wi-Fi will coexist with both public and private 5G (including systems or perhaps slices provided by telcos), as well as various other wireless and fibre/fixed connectivity modes. Some elements will converge while others will stay separate. CSPs should “go with the grain” of enterprise networks and select/integrate/operate the right tools for the job, rather than trying to force-fit their preferred technical solution.

Roles and channels for enterprise Wi-Fi

Today, there are multiple roles for Wi-Fi in a business or corporate context. The most important include:

  • Traditional use in offices, both for normal working areas and shared spaces such as meeting and conference rooms. There is often a guest access option.
  • Small businesses use Wi-Fi extensively, as many workers rely on laptops and similar devices, plus vertical-specific endpoints such as payment terminals. Often, they will obtain Wi-Fi capabilities along with their normal retail business broadband connection from a service provider. This may include various types of guest-access option. Common use of shared buildings such as multi-tenant office blocks or retail malls means there may be a reliance on the landlord or site operator for network connectivity.
  • Working from home brings a wide range of new roles for Wi-Fi, especially where there is an intersection of corporate applications and security, with normal home and consumer demand. A growing range of solutions targets this type of converged situation.
  • Large visitor-led venues such as sports stadia, hotels and resorts are hugely important for the Wi-Fi industry. They often have guests with very high expectations of Wi-Fi reliability, coverage, and performance – and also often use the infrastructure themselves for staff, displays and various IoT and connected systems.
  • Municipal and city authorities have gone through two or more rounds of Wi-Fi deployments. Initial 2010-era visions for connectivity often stalled because of a mismatch between usage at the time (mostly on laptops, indoors) and coverage (mostly outdoors). Since then, the rise of smartphone ubiquity, plus a greater array of IoT and smart city devices has made city-centre Wi-Fi more useful again. Increasingly, it is being linked to 5G small cell deployments, metro fibre networks – and made more usable with easier roaming / logon procedures. Some local authorities’ scope also covers Wi-Fi use within education and healthcare settings.
  • Public Wi-Fi hotspots overlap with various enterprise sectors, most notably in transport, cafes/restaurants and hospitality sectors. Where organisations have large venues or multiple sites, such as chain of cafes or retail outlets, there is likely to be some wider enterprise proposition involved.
  • The transport industry is a hugely important sector for enterprise Wi-Fi solutions. Vehicles themselves (buses, planes, trains, taxis) require connectivity for passengers, while transport hubs (airports, stations, etc.) have huge requirements for ease-of-access and performance for Wi-Fi.
  • Wi-Fi technology is also widely used as the basis for fixed-wireless access over medium-to-wide areas. Sometimes using vendor-specific enhancements, it is common to use unlicenced spectrum and 802.11-based networks for connectivity to rural businesses or specific fixed assets. A new version of Wi-Fi technology (802.11ah HaLow) also allows low-power wide area applications for sensors and other IoT devices, which can potentially compete against LoRa and 4G NB-IoT, although it is very late to the market.
  • Niche applications for Wi-Fi technology also exist, for example backhauling other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth, for in-building sensing and automation. There are also emerging propositions such as using high-capacity 60GHz Wi-Fi to replace fibres and cabling inside buildings, especially for rapid installation or in environments where drilling holes in walls requires permits.

Enterprise Wi-Fi solutions cover a broad range of contexts and uses

Given the range of Wi-Fi enterprise market sectors and use cases, it is unsurprising that there are also multiple ways for companies and organisations to obtain the infrastructure, as well as operate the connectivity functions or services.

Some of the options include:

  • Self-provision: Many large organisations will source, install, and operate their own Wi-Fi networks via their IT and networking teams, as they do for fixed LAN and sometimes WAN equipment. They may rely on vendor or outsourced support and specific tasks such as wiring installation.
  • Broadband CSP: Especially for smaller sites, Wi-Fi is often obtained alongside business broadband connectivity, perhaps from an integrated router managed by the ISP.
  • Enterprise MSP: Larger businesses may use dedicated enterprise-grade service providers for their Internet connections, UCaaS services, SD-WAN / SASE networks and so on. These organisations may also provide on-site Wi-Fi installation and management services, or work with sub-contractors to deliver them.
  • Solution providers: Various IT and OT systems, such as building management systems or industrial automation solutions, may come with Wi-Fi embedded into the fabric of the proposition.
  • Managed Wi-Fi specialists: Especially for visitor-centric locations like transport hubs, Wi-Fi coverage and operation may be outsourced to a third party managed service operator. They will typically handle the infrastructure (and any upgrades), authentication, security and backhaul on a contractual basis. They will also likely provide staff/IoT connections as well as guest access.
  • Network integrators: Enterprises may obtain Wi-Fi installations as a one-off project from a network specialist (perhaps with separate maintenance / upgrade agreements). This may well be combined with fixed LAN infrastructure and other relevant elements. This may also be a channel for hybrid Wi-Fi / private cellular in future.
  • Vertical specialists: Various industries such as hotels, aviation, hospitals, mining and so on will often have dedicated companies catering to sector-specific needs, standards, regulations, or business practices. They may tie together various other technology elements, such as IoT connections, asset tracking, voice communications and so forth, using Wi-Fi where appropriate.
  • In-building wireless specialists: Various companies specialise in both indoor cellular coverage systems and Wi-Fi. Often linked to tower companies or neutral-host business models.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Structure and objectives of this report
    • Background and history
    • Roles and channels for enterprise Wi-Fi
    • Recent enterprise Wi-Fi market trends
    • Note on terminology
  • The evolution of “Wi-Fi for verticals”
    • Understanding Wi-Fi “verticals”
    • Existing vertical-specific Wi-Fi solutions
    • Wi-Fi in industry verticals – building ecosystems
  • Wi-Fi 6, 6E & 7: Rapid cadence or confusion?
    • Continual evolution of Wi-Fi capabilities: 6, 6E, 7
    • Wi-Fi 7 may be a game-changer for enterprise
    • The long-term future: Wi-Fi 8 and beyond
    • Other Wi-Fi variants: 60GHz and HaLow
  • Where do Wi-Fi and 5G overlap competitively?
    • Does private 5G change the game?
    • Convergence / divergence
  • The political and regulatory dimensions of enterprise wireless
    • 6GHz spectrum
  • CSPs and enterprise Wi-Fi
    • CSPs and large enterprise / industrial Wi-Fi
    • Wi-Fi service value-adds
    • Wi-Fi and edge compute
  • Conclusions

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