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Cisco exec. details how Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will fire-up enterprises in 2019 and beyond

News Analysis
Feb 21, 20196 mins
Internet of ThingsMobileNetworking

Cisco’s Scott Harrell says Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will change how businesses think about wired vs. wireless networking and add new options for SD-WAN deployments.

Few technologies have the potential to shake up enterprise networks like Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technologies do in 2019 and beyond.

5G carrier-based wireless is going to start rolling out, bringing a promise of dramatically better performance to mobile workers and the enterprise, and Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) will go mainstream in 2019. Together the technologies will dramatically alter the mobile enterprise for many users and enable new use cases for wireless that weren’t possible before, said Scott Harrell, senior vice president and general manager of enterprise networking at Cisco.

For enterprise users WiFi 6 and 5G will ultimately coexist, and it will be an evolving challenge to manage these separate access technologies as integrated systems with unified policy, security and analytics, Harrell said.

Cisco SVP Scott Harrell cisco

Cisco SVP Scott Harrell

In the end though that ability will make users more productive and when security is integrated as it needs to be, it will help IT deal much more effectively with the heterogenous world that has applications everywhere, he said.

“Orchestrating the management systems of these separate networks is our next frontier,” Harrell said. “That’s where we want to go.”

While it is early in the 5G and Wi-Fi 6 evolution, 2019 will see development of that integration. According to a blog post by Harrell, this year will find carrier-based mobile connectivity (LTE and 5G cellular) and unlicensed nomadic networking, Wi-Fi 6, converge in two key areas: radio signal encoding and scheduling.

Both new wireless systems use the same method to squeeze more users and data into the frequencies they use, so each base station or access point can talk to more devices simultaneously, Harrell stated.

“Also, with Wi-Fi 6, local wireless networking gets more scheduled, deterministic use of spectrum, he stated. “Unlike other versions of Wi-Fi, which use a randomized channel access mechanism, with Wi-Fi 6, a device can rely on being able to use the radio on a particular schedule (measured by the millisecond).” Scheduled access enables lower latency, battery consumption and also allows for greater density of devices, he said.

As for the impact of Wi-Fi 6 for enterprise customers, Harrell said that combined with its reasonable cost to deploy and maintain, it will prove an ideal system for indoor wireless connectivity – especially in areas with crowded access points.

 “Users on Wi-Fi 6 devices will see improved individual experiences. People in crowded areas that have traditionally offered hit-or-miss performance (waiting rooms, student lecture halls, meeting spaces, and so on), will have better experiences,” Harrell said. 

Some devices that previously would only be connected by wired Ethernet will be able to move to wireless. “This will help drive innovation around high-bandwidth and latency-sensitive use cases that should really be untethered, like AR/VR, gaming, and video communications,” Harrell said.

As the number of performance-sensitive wireless devices goes up, enterprises will need new network intelligence to assure the best levels of service, he said.

“Specifically, Cisco believes that Wi-Fi 6 access points, and end devices themselves, must become sensors, collecting real-time performance and experience data that they stream to a new generation of analytic engines,” Harrell said. “This will allow for proactive and granular management of these increasingly complex environments.”

Harrell also says businesses can gather rich data about their facilities by tracking how Wi-Fi devices move through them. This information will change how businesses optimize the use of their physical locations. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 access points will increasingly include additional radios, like Bluetooth and Zigbee, which will make them more capable IoT gateways and useful wireless sensors.

The need to manage IoT is growing as Cisco, in its just released Global Mobile Data Traffic Forecast Update (2017–2022) forecasts that by 2022, mobile networks will support more than eight billion personal mobile devices and four billion IoT connections.

While the impact of Wi-Fi 6 will be significant for enterprise users, 5G will influence that arena as well. 

5G evolution

“In the first evolution we expect to see a lot of 5G being used in branches as a faster backup and bandwidth boost over current 4G or LTE links,” Harrell said. “5G has the potential to drive higher availability and better application performance which can all be controlled by the SD-WAN system.”

Keeping an enterprise’s branch and campus locations all connected to each other and the Internet has traditionally fallen to wired technologies like T1/E1 and xDSL, Harrell said. Today, 4G is often used to quickly bring up sites or as a back-up link, but it’s seldom used as a primary link, due to bandwidth limitations and cost.

Harrell said 5G can be used to augment or in some scenarios replace a wired connection. And with contemporary SD-WAN tools, it’s simple to deploy 5G in parallel with other WAN services – even across thousands of sites.

“Moreover, wireless links make sense for businesses that rely on having robust, always-on connectivity to their branch offices, and for businesses that rely on cloud services,” Harrell said. Wireless backhaul links can’t be cut, and wireless infrastructure is often the first communications service restored after a disaster.

For even more bandwidth, 5G has extensions into high-frequency millimeter wave bands, which offer significantly higher throughput. These high-frequency bands do not easily reach indoor spaces, but carriers can quickly set up external, line-of-site antennas to provide dedicated, high-speed connectivity at competitive prices, Harrell wrote.

In the traffic forecast study, Cisco said of 5g: “While 4G has been driven by device proliferation and dynamic information access, 5G will be driven largely by IoT applications such as sensors and meters at the low end to autonomous cars and other tactile Internet driven applications at the high end of the spectrum.

“With 5G, resources will be allocated based on awareness of content, user and location. This technology is expected to solve frequency licensing and spectrum-management issues. Large scale commercial deployments are not expected until the latter years of the current forecast.”

Some other salient 5G predictions from the Cisco survey:

  • By 2022, 5G connections will represent over three percent of total mobile connections and will account for nearly 12 percent of global mobile data traffic.
  • By 2022, the average 5G connection (22 GB/month) will generate about three times more traffic than the average 4G connection (8 GB/month).

Perhaps a more immediate technology known as Citizens Broadband Radio Service will impact the mobile community, Harrell noted. CBRS uses spectrum in the 3.5Ghz range that is not used by WiFi or existing LTE/5G services in the U.S.

In fact this month a group pushing the use of CBRS – the CBRS Alliance and the Small Cell Forum – announced an agreement to advance use of the technology for IoT and other applications.   The groups stated: “Under the new agreement, the organizations will work together on a variety of initiatives related to the wide-scale adoption of small cells, network densification, and the development, commercialization and adoption of OnGo-certified solutions for the 3.5 GHz band.”

Harrell said some initial CBRS capabilities will be rolling out in products shortly. For devices like robots that need guaranteed connectivity as well as mobility, CBRS will be a great compliment to W-Fi 6. Most businesses using CBRS will use it together with Wi-Fi 6, he said.