Private 5G Needs Complexity To Thrive

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.

Walking Workforces

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.


Tom’s Take

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.

Why Do We Tolerate Bad Wireless?

HotelSpeedConnection

If there is one black eye on the hospitality industry, it has to be wireless.  I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anyone that is truly happy with the wireless connectivity they found in a hotel.  The above picture from an unnamed hotel in Silicon Valley just serves to underscore that point.  When I was on a recent speaking trip in New England, I even commented about the best hotel wireless I’d ever seen:

Granted, that was due to a secluded hotel on MIT‘s university network, but the fact remains that this shouldn’t be the exception.  This should be the rule.

Thanks to advances in mobile technology like LTE, we have a new benchmark for what a mobile device is capable of producing.  My LTE tablet and phone outrun my home cable connection.  That’s fine for browsing on a picture frame.  However, when it’s time to get real work done I still need to fire up my laptop.  And since there isn’t an integrated LTE/4G hotspot in my MacBook, I have to rely on wireless.

Wireless access has gone from being a kitschy offering at specialized places to being an everpresent part of our daily lives.  When I find myself in need of working outside the office, I can think of at least five different local establishments that offer me free wireless access.  Signing up for mobile hotspot services easily doubles that number.  There are very few places that I go any more that don’t give me the ability to use WiFI.  However, there is a difference between having availability and having “good” availability.

Good Enough Wireless

I would never upload video at a coffee shop or an airport.  The sheer number of folks using the network causes massive latency and throughput issues.  Connections are spotty and it’s not uncommon to see folks throw their hands up in the air because something just randomly stopped working.  However, the most telling statistic is how often we will go back to that same location to use the free wifi again.

Hotels have a captive audience.  You’re there to attend a conference during the day or spend the night.  You are geographically isolated.  You get what you get when it comes to connectivity.  Newer hotel chains that focus on business travelers understand the need for wireless connectivity.  They usually offer it for free with your room.  That’s because they usually have the infrastructure to support wireless coverage from large numbers of guests.  Older hotels that aren’t quite up to snuff or don’t understand why travelers need Internet access usually charge exorbitant fees or bundle the wireless into a “resort” package that gives you a whole bunch of high-margin useless services to get what you want.  Sometimes they use those fees to upgrade the infrastructure.  Or they just pocket the money and go on with their day.

Internet In My Pocket

As much as we complain about terrible wireless at hotels, it’s not like we have an alternative.  Wireless hotspot devices, commonly called “MiFis” after the Verizon branding, are popular with real road warriors.  Why hunt for a coffee shop when you can fire up a wireless network in your pocket?  Most current mobile devices even come with hotspot functionality built in.  But the carriers haven’t gotten the message yet.  For every one that allows hotspot usage (Verizon), you have those that don’t believe in hotspot and want to gouge you with higher fees or data plan changes to revamp bad mobile data decisions in the past.  Yes, I’m looking right at you AT&T.

Mobile hotspots can fix wireless problems in isolated cases, but loading a hotel full of people on MiFis will inevitably end in disaster.  Each of them uses a portion of the LTE/4G spectrum.  Think about a large gathering where everyone’s mobile phones cause spotty reception.  Not because they are all in use, but because they just happen to be occupying the same space.  Towers get overloaded, backhaul networks slow down, and service suffers for everyone.  If you don’t believe me, try making a phone call at Cisco Live some time.  It’s not pretty.

As long as there are no options for solving the problem, hospitality will go right on offering the same terrible coverage they do now.  As far as they are concerned, wireless is best effort.  Best effort should never be acceptable.  You can fix this problem by going to the front desk and telling them all about it.  No, don’t yell at the desk attendant.  They have zero control over what’s going on.  There’s a better way.

Satisfaction Not Guaranteed

Ask for a satisfaction survey.  Fill it out and be brutally honest when you get to the “Are You Pleased” section.  Those surveys go right up the chain into the chain satisfaction ratings.  If they start getting disgruntled comments about bad wireless coverage, I can promise that some Quality Champion somewhere is going to look into things.  Hotels hate black eyes on their satisfaction ratings.  Bad reviews keep people from staying at a hotel.  If you want to get the wireless fixed, tell them how important it is.  Tell them you’ll stay somewhere else next time because you can accomplish anything.  Voting with your wallet is a sure fire way to make an impact.

Tom’s Take

I remember the old Cingular/AT&T Wireless commercials with the cell phones cutting out during calls.  I laughed and thought about all the times it had happened to me.  It because such a sticking point that every carrier worked to upgrade their network and provide better call quality.  No one would stand for spotty service any more as they began to rely on their mobile phones as their primary communications devices.

Wireless is the same now as cell phones were then.  We need a concerted effort to upgrade the experience for everyone to make it usable for things like Hotspot 2.0, which will offload traffic from LTE to WiFI seemlessly.  We can’t let terrible wireless rule us like spotty cell phone coverage did years ago.  Do everything you can to make wireless useful for everyone.

Causing A Network Ruckus

ruckuslogo

The second presentation of day 2 of Network Field Day was from Ruckus wireless. Yes, a wireless company at a non-wireless Field Day event. I had known for a while that Ruckus wanted to present at Network Field Day and I was excited to see what they would bring. My previous experience with Ruckus was very enlightening. I wanted to see how they would do outside the comfort zone of a wireless event. Add in the fact that most networks are now becoming converged from the perspective of offering both wired and wireless access and you can see the appeal of being the only wireless company on the slate.

We started off with a talk from GT Hill (@GTHill). GT is one of those guys that started out very technical before jumping into the dark side of marketing. I think his presentation should be required viewing for those that think they may want to talk to any Tech Field Day group. GT had a lot of energy that he poured into his talk.  I especially loved how he took a few minutes at the beginning to ask the delegates about their familiarity with wireless.  That’s not something you typically see from a vertical-focused field day like NFD, but it does get back to the cross discipline aspect that makes the greater Tech Field Day events so great.  Once GT had an idea of what we all knew he kept each and every one of the delegates engaged as he discussed why wireless was so hard to do compared to the “simplicity” of wired networking. Being a fan of explaining technical subjects with easy-to-understand examples, I loved GT using archery as a way to explain the relative difficulty of 802.11 broadcasts in 802.11n and 802.11ac.

The second part of the discussion from Sandip Patel about 802.11ac was great. I didn’t get a chance to hear the presentations from the other wireless vendors at Wireless Field Day 3 & 4. Picking up all the new information regarding things like channel bandwidth and multi-user spatial streams was very nice for me.  There’s a lot of new technology being poured into 802.11ac right now.  There’s also a lot that’s being prepped for the future as well.  While I knew that 160 MHz channels were going to be necessary to get the full bandwidth rates out of 802.11ac, I was unaware that you could have two 80 MHz channels simultaneously working together to provide that.  You learn something awesome at every Field Day event.  I think 802.11ac is going to push a lot of lesser vendors out of the market before all is said and done.  The huge leap forward for throughput comes with a great cost insofar as making sure that your wireless radios work correctly while at the same time accommodating noise and interference.  Companies like Cisco and Aruba are going to come out okay just by virtue of being so large.  Aerohive should come out fine as well.  I think Ruckus has taken a unique approach with their antenna technology.  That shows in these presentations, as Ruckus will be the first to tell you that their superior transmitting technology means that the signal will be cleaner between client and AP.  I want to see a real 802.11ac from every wireless company put together in a room with various noise producers to see what happens.  Maybe something for Wireless Field Day 5?

After we shut off the cameras, we got to take tour of the Ruckus testing facilities.  Since Ruckus had moved buildings since Wireless Field Day 2 it was a brand new room.  There was a lot more room than the previous testing area that we’d seen before.  They still had a lot of the same strange containers and rooms designed to subject access point radios to the strangest RF environments imaginable.  In the new building, there was just a lot more elbow room to walk around along with more tables to spread out and get down to the nuts and bolts of testing.

If you’d like to learn more about Ruckus Wireless and their solutions, you can check them out at http://www.ruckuswireless.com.  You can also follow them on Twitter as @ruckuswireless.


Tom’s Take

While the Ruckus presentation was geared more toward people who weren’t that familiar with the wireless space, I loved it nonetheless.  GT Hill related to a group of non-wireless people in the best way I could imagine.  Sandip brought a lot of info about 802.11ac to the table now that the vendors are starting to ramp up towards putting out enterprise APs.  Ruckus wanted to show everyone that wireless is an important part of the conversation when it comes to the larger networking story.  While we spend a lot of time at NFD talking about SDN or data centers or other lofty things, it’s important to remember that our tweets and discussion and even our video coverage is coming over a wireless network of some kind.  Going to a vendor without some form of wireless access is a demerit in their case.  I’ve always made a point of paying attention once I see that something is everywhere I go.  Thankfully, Ruckus made the right kind of noise to make the delegates sit up and pay attention.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Ruckus was a sponsor of Network Field Day 5.  As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Network Field Day 5.  In addition, Ruckus provided me with lunch at their offices.  They also provided a custom nameplate and a gift package containing a wireless access point and controller.  At no time did they ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review.  The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.

Additional Network Field Day 5 Coverage

Terry Slattery – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless

Pete Welcher – Network Field Day 5: Ruckus Wireless Comments

Pete Welcher – Testing WLAN and Network Management Products