I know we talk about the subject of private 5G a lot in the industry but there are more players coming out every day looking to add their voice to the growing supporters of these solutions. And despite the fact that we tend to see 5G and Wi-Fi technologies as ships in the night this discussion isn’t going to go away any time soon. In part it’s because decision makers aren’t quite savvy enough to distinguish between the bands, thinking all wireless communications are pretty much the same.
I think we’re not going to see much overlap between these two technologies. But the reasons why aren’t quite what you might think.
Working from anywhere other than the traditional office is here to stay. Every major Silicon Valley company has looked at the cost benefit analysis and decided to let workers do their thing from where they live. How can I tell it’s permanent? Because they’re reducing salaries for those that choose to stay away from the Bay Area. That carrot is pretty enticing and for the companies to say that it’s not on the table for remote work going forward means they have no incentive to make people want to move to work from an office.
Mobile workers don’t care about how they connect. As long as they can get online they are able to get things done. They are the prime use case for 5G and Private 5G deployments. Who cares about the Wi-Fi at a coffee shop if you’ve got fast connectivity built in to your mobile phone or tablet? Moreover, I can also see a few of the more heavily regulated companies requiring you to use a 5G uplink to connect to sensitive data though a VPN or other technology. It eliminates some of the issues with wireless protection methods and ensures that no one can easily snoop on what you’re sending.
Mobile workers will start to demand 5G in their devices. It’s a no-brainer for it to be in the phone and the tablet. As laptops go it’s a smart decision at some point, provided enough people have swapped over to using tablets by then. I use my laptop every day when I work but I’m finding myself turning to my iPad more and more. Not for any magical reason but because it’s convenient if I want to work from somewhere other than my desk. I think that when laptops hit a wall from a performance standpoint you’re going to see a lot of manufacturers start to include 5G as a connection option to lure people back to them instead of abandoning them to the big tablet competition.
However, 5G is really only a killer technology for these more complex devices. The cost of a 5G radio isn’t inconsequential to the overall cost of a device. After all, Apple raised the price of their iPad when they included a 5G radio, didn’t they? You could argue that they didn’t when they upgraded the iPhone to a 5G chipset but the cellular technology is much more integral to the iPhone than the iPad. As companies examine how they are going to move forward with their radio technology it only makes sense to put the 5G radios in things that have ample space, appropriate power, and the ability to recover the costs of including the chips. It’s going to be much more powerful but it’s also going to be a bigger portion of the bill of materials for the device. Higher selling prices and higher margins are the order of the day in that market.
Reassuringly Expensive IoT
One of the drivers for private 5G that I’ve heard of recently is the drive to have IoT sensors connected over the protocol. The thinking goes that the number of devices that are going to be deployed it going to create a significant amount of traffic in a dense area that is going to require the controls present in 5G to ensure they aren’t creating issues. I would tend to agree but with a huge caveat.
The IoT sensors that people are talking about here aren’t the ones that you might think of in the consumer space. For whatever reason people tend to assume IoT is a thermostat or a small device that does simple work. That’s not the case here. These IoT devices aren’t things that you’re going to be buying one or two at a time. They are sensors connected to a larger system. Think HVAC relays and probes. Think lighting sensors or other environmental tech. You know what comes along with that kind of hardware? Monitoring. Maintenance. Subscription costs.
The IoT that is going to take advantage of private 5G isn’t something you’re going to be deploying yourself. Instead, it’s going to be something that you partner with another organization to deploy. You might “own” the tech in the sense that you control the data but you aren’t going to be the one going out to Best Buy or Tech Data to order a spare. Instead, you’re going to pay someone to deploy it and it when it goes wrong. So how does that differ from the IoT thermostat that comes to mind? Price. Those sensors are several hundred dollars each. You’re paying for the technology included in them with that monthly fee to monitor and maintain them. They will talk to the radio station in the building or somewhere nearby and relay that data back to your dashboard. Perhaps it’s on-site or, more likely, in a cloud instance somewhere. All those fees mean that the devices become more complex and can absorb the cost of more complicated radio technology.
What About Wireless?
Remember when wireless was something cool that you had to show off to people that bought a brand new laptop? Or the thrill of seeing your first iPhone connect to attwifi at Starbucks instead of using that data plan you paid so dearly to get? Wireless isn’t cool any more. Yes, it’s faster. Yes, it is the new edge of our world. But it’s not cool. In the same way that Ethernet isn’t cool. Or web browsers aren’t cool. Or the internal combustion engine isn’t cool. Wi-Fi isn’t cool any more because it is necessary. You couldn’t open an office today without having some form of wireless communications. Even if you tried I’m sure that someone would hop over to the nearest big box store and buy a consumer-grade router to get wireless working before the paint was even dry on the walls.
We shouldn’t think about private 5G replacing Wi-Fi because it never will. There will be use cases where 5G makes much more sense, like in high-density deployments or in areas were the contention in the wireless spectrum is just too great to make effective use of it. However, not deploying Wi-Fi in favor of deploying private 5G is a mistake. Wireless is the perfect “set it and forget it” technology. Provide an SSID for people to connect to and then let them go crazy. Public venues are going to rely on Wi-Fi for the rest of time. These places don’t have the kind of staff necessary to make private 5G economical in the long run.
Instead, think of private 5G deployments more like the way that Wi-Fi used to be. It’s an option for devices that need to be managed and controlled by the organization. They need to be provisioned. They need to consume cycles to operate properly. They need to be owned by the company and not the employee. Private 5G is more of a play for infrastructure. Wi-Fi is the default medium given the wide adoption it has today. It may not be the coolest way to connect to the network but it’s the one you can be sure is up and running without the need for the IT department to come down and make it work for you.
I’ll admit that the idea of private 5G makes me smile some days. I wish I had some kind of base station here at my house to counteract the horrible reception that I get. However, as long as my Internet connection is stable I have enough wireless coverage in the house to make the devices I have work properly. Private 5G isn’t something that is going to displace the installed base of Wi-Fi devices out there. With the amount of management that 5G requires in devices you’re not going to see a cheap or simple method to deploying it appear any time soon. The pie-in-the-sky vision of having pervasive low power deployments in cheap devices is not going to be realistic on the near future horizon. Instead, think of private 5G as something that you need to use when your other methods won’t work or when someone you are partnering with to deploy new technology requires it. That way you won’t be caught off-guard when the complexity of the technology comes to play.