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

Related research

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Telco plays in live entertainment

Enhancing live entertainment

Live entertainment spans everything from a handful of people enjoying stand-up comedy in a pub to a football match attended by 100,000 fans. Although there are many different forms and formats of live entertainment, they share three inter-related characteristics – immediacy, interactivity and immersion. The performers make things happen and people tend to react, by clapping, shouting, singing or gesticulating at the performers or by interacting with each other. A compelling event will also be immersive in the sense that the spectators will focus entirely on the action.

For telcos, live events present specific challenges and opportunities. Simultaneously providing millions of people with high quality images and audio from live events can soak up large amounts of bandwidth on networks, forcing telcos to invest in additional capacity. Yet, it should be feasible to make a return on that investment: live events are an enormously popular form of entertainment on which people around the world are prepared to spend vast sums of money. This is a market where demand often outstrips supply: tickets for top tier sports events or music concerts can cost US$150 or more.

With the advent of 5G and Wi-Fi 6E, telcos have an opportunity to improve spectators’ enjoyment of live events both within a venue and in remote locations. Indeed, telcos could play a key role in enabling many more people to both participate in and appreciate live entertainment, thereby helping them to enjoy more fulfilling and enriching lives.

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The opportunities to use new technologies to enhance live events

Live entertainment

Source: STL Partners

More broadly, telecoms networks and related services have become fundamental to the smooth running of our increasingly digital economy. Our landmark report The Coordination Age: A third age of telecoms explained how reliable and ubiquitous connectivity can enable companies and consumers to use digital technologies to efficiently allocate and source assets and resources. In the case of live entertainment, telcos can help people to make better use of their leisure time – a precious and very finite resource for most individuals.

This report begins by providing an overview of the live entertainment opportunity for telcos, outlining the services they could provide to support both professional and amateur events. It then considers the growing demand for high-definition, 360-degree coverage of live events, before discussing why it is increasingly important to deliver footage in real-time, rather than near real-time. Subsequent sections explore the expanding role of edge computing in facilitating live broadcasts and how augmented reality and virtual reality could be used to create more immersive and interactive experiences.

This report draws on the experiences and actions of AT&T, BT, NTT and Verizon, which are all very active in the coverage of live sports. It also builds on previous STL Partners research including:

Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Opportunities to enhance live entertainment
    • Amateur entertainment – a B2C play
  • Delivering high-definition/360-degree video
    • New broadcast technologies
    • Real-time encoding and compression
    • Traffic management and net neutrality
  • Real real-time coverage and stats
    • More data and more stats
    • Personalised advertising and offers
  • Edge computing and the in-event experience
    • Refereeing automation/support
    • In-venue security and safety
    • Wi-Fi versus 5G
  • Augmented reality – blurring the lines
  • Conclusions
    • Tech can enrich people’s experience of live events
    • The role of telcos
  • Index

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The state of the art on work from home propositions

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WFH: From survival to strategy

The imposed shift to homeworking has divided many businesses. Some (including Facebook, Twitter, Slack, Microsoft, Indeed, AMEX, Mastercard) say they will never require office work again, whereas others are eager to bring back the personal element and re-introduce the “office dynamic”. The concept of ‘Zoom Fatigue’ has left some people pining for the office, and many companies find themselves on standby, aiming to reopen the offices to all staff during 2021.

A survey by Ipsos MORI found that the majority of people expect normality to return somewhere between six months to two years. One thing is apparent – the ability and timing to even consider a full return to work is uncertain.

Figure 1: Ipsos MORI survey of homeworkers in the UK

Ipsos Mori WFH survey

Source: Ipsos MORI

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When the lockdowns started, uncertainty caused paralysis to strategic initiatives as budgets diverted towards creating a Work From Home (WFH) culture. Survival became the priority for businesses, delaying planned spend on corporate connectivity and networking. That same survival instinct saw telcos and suppliers react and reposition products and services toward remote work.

As WFH continued throughout the pandemic various advantages came to the fore, such as reduction in pollution from travel and the ability to hire great talent which may not be located near a corporate office. Businesses started or accelerated a journey of massive (and sometimes painful) transformation but, from that, have either accelerated or embarked on a digital transformation journey. The gains in efficiency and business opportunity have the potential to be significant. WFH is no longer an approach to survival but instead, part of a broader strategy to optimise operations across a

increasingly complex physical and digital worlds. This growing need across all enterprises and consumers is one of the key elements within STL’s vision of the Coordination Age.

A hybrid approach is here to stay

Homeworking must continue for some time to come as we wait for the pandemic to subside. As we have adopted a homeworking culture, albeit forced upon us, the investments in people, technologies and processes have already been committed. Although there is much conflicting opinion about the long-term outcomes, there is no looking back. The workplace has transformed, and the connectivity and business enablement products to support it have become commonplace.

There are three considerations which will continue to drive the support and growth of WFH.

  1. Covid-19 does not have a defined end. The uncertainty and unfortunate lengthy road to fully managing the virus means that businesses will need to continue efforts towards supporting a large amount of remote work.
  2. Remaining relevant. Many businesses will embrace a no-office, online-only culture (including typical storefronts) in response to changing customer and employee preferences. To do business in such an environment will require the adoption of the latest online tools and practices.
  3. Investment in digital transformation. Before Covid-19 and independent to any prior appetite for home working, digital transformation has already led many businesses to adopt cloud services, online collaboration tools and uCaaS solutions for voice and video. It is now generally accepted that Covid-19 has accelerated and rapidly matured the integration of these solutions into many businesses. According to BT, the “technology/digital transformation journey” in the UK has been sped up by almost 5.5 years.

The support of WFH, fully or hybrid, is therefore strategic and something likely to feature in business plans for the foreseeable future. Even when offices do eventually begin to fill up again, work from home will transition and merge into the “work from anywhere” culture.

Telcos are in a unique position to provide all the connectivity and services required to assist in these projects, but to do that they need to offer appropriately positioned solutions. As consumer and business connectivity become intertwined, it creates a large area of uncertainty for businesses. As both consumer and business connectivity are core competencies for telcos, bringing the two together is the next natural step.

The telco role: An opportunity or obligation?

The adaptation of businesses towards increased homeworking is, of course, complex and touches nearly every part of the business, from people to processes and technology. Almost every business function will have invested considerable time and effort towards establishing new ways of working. In many cases, this would result in a change to the supporting technologies.

Underpinning all of this is a large assumption that each employee will be able to reliably connect to the new virtual business environment from wherever they want, and the technology will just work. To all but the most technically advanced businesses, the homeworker’s personal connectivity is just that – personal – and not an area that many businesses can currently manage.

The telco is in a unique position when it comes to WFH as it can touch every part of the service delivery chain. With many businesses unable to address the broad spectrum of WFH needs, the opportunity for telcos is to offer the enabling services. Telco solutions must now support businesses by providing the right mix of physical connectivity and enablement services.

Figure 2: The telco touchpoints in WFH service delivery

The touch points in telco WFH service delivery

Source: STL Partners

Telcos have had an obligation to provide continued service to businesses and homes, throughout the pandemic. Universal service obligations needed to be maintained while national charters to keep the country connected were agreed. When the pandemic started, the demand for connectivity within the business segment shifted to the consumer segment and telcos had to respond.

Businesses initially froze all internal connectivity projects and focused on the remote workforce — this impacted Q2 revenues in telcos’ business segments. At the same time telcos did everything they could to make the transition as easy as possible, removing data limits and speed caps and providing free trials of collaboration and communications tools. More detail is provided in STL Partners review of the initial telco responses.

Figure 3: Liberty Global Q3 2020 results illustrate the impact to the business segment

Liberty Global Q320 results

Source: Liberty Global

Eventually IT infrastructure projects re-started. Businesses with significant office-based operations (as opposed to, e.g. manufacturing) applied new focus on creating more flexible and agile networks which can support mass WFH. The dependency on digital collaboration and ensuring that homeworkers can work without disruption has now become a high priority. A Q3 improvement in business spending is partly down to collaboration enabling technologies creating new opportunities for telcos – to address the shifts from legacy business spend on connecting large sites towards a more distributed concept where households connectivity is both personal and business focused.

Consumer connectivity products must now simply articulate the support for all household needs, including WFH. Business products must enable the agility a business needs to adapt to any future changes, while easily embracing their employees’ consumer connectivity.

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • A six point plan for embracing WFH opportunities
    • How telcos responded to ‘work going home’ in 2020
    • Two essential areas in need of development
    • What next: Considerations for different types of telco
  • Introduction
    • WFH: From survival to strategy
    • A hybrid approach is here to stay
    • The telco role: An opportunity or obligation?
    • Embracing the consumer architecture
  • The WFH journey: From initial responses to strategic opportunities
    • Uncoordinated connectivity: The initial stakeholder responses
    • Intelligent networking for WFH
    • Long term WFH: The telco opportunity
  • Telco WFH propositions today
    • How telcos are positioning WFH services
    • Consumer broadband: Overlay services for the household
    • Dedicated WFH: Made-to-measure
    • WFH as part of wider transformation efforts
  • Conclusion and recommendations
    • The innovation opportunity

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