5G has always been cast as a network technology that will revolutionize the enterprise by making factories smarter, healthcare more available, and transportation more efficient. And now that commercial 5G networks are becoming more pervasive, enterprises are beginning to better understand what the technology can do. (FierceWireless is hosting online panels as part of its 5G Blitz Week. The Monday, March 23 panel is entitled "5G in the Verticals: How Can Enterprises Best Use 5G?")
There are some hurdles to overcome before the industry will see widespread enterprise adoption of 5G. Shiraz Hasan, VP of global business and industry solution channel marketing at AT&T Business, says that the industry still has a long way to go in educating enterprise customers about 5G. “There is still a lack of knowledge and understanding of 5G. We spend a lot of time with our customers, explaining the capabilities and helping them think through the use cases,” he said.
Likewise, Asha Keddy, corporate vice president and general manager of Intel, said that there are still some key things that need to be put in place before enterprises will adopt 5G. “Enterprises are interested in control and we need to find a way for enterprises to have the type of end-to-end control that they need. That includes analytics, security and privacy,” she said.
Private 5G Networks
Some of that control will likely come from the establishment of local 5G networks that enterprises could deploy or manage.
Youngbin Wei, vice president of engineering at Qualcomm Technologies, said that many enterprises want 5G to become more “localized” or basically operate like a private network. “The 3GPP added support for private networks in Release 16,” Wei said, adding that he believes there will be a few different scenarios that will unfold to make this happen.
For example, in one model an enterprise could establish its own on-premise 5G network that is completely localized and managed by the enterprise’s IT department. Alternatively, a second model could have the mobile operator handling the network infrastructure, but the enterprise IT department will control the user data.
Wei admits that enterprises may push for the first model but that operators are likely going to prefer the second model. And he also noted that not all enterprises have IT departments with the necessary skills to manage a 5G network. “There are trials happening right now and people are exploring different models,” he said.
But Intel’s Keddy believes that because 5G networks will take advantage of virtualization and cloud computing, they will look more like enterprise networks and therefore IT departments will not have a very steep learning curve. “Basically, the network will be distributed and IT departments will have to have knowledge of wireless and understand AI [artificial intelligence],” she said. “I don’t know that we can differentiate between communications and compute any longer.”
Carriers will play a role
Enterprises may want control of the network, but wireless operators view their relationship with the enterprise as a partnership in which they play a key role. Hasan said that AT&T has put a lot of focus on vertical industries and how they can benefit from 5G. The company has worked with early adopters in vertical markets such as healthcare, retail, manufacturing and finance to create different scenarios and use cases for how 5G will improve their business.
In the retail area, Hasan said that they are working with retailers that want to create immersive experiences and drive traffic back into retail stores. “We can help them create those experiences that are not available online,” he said.
And while some enterprises may want control of the network, Hasan said that AT&T is finding that many companies are looking to the operators for guidance. “Customers are coming to us because of the history we have with networks,” he said. “We see ourselves playing a very big role.”
But there may be some opportunity for resellers or systems integrators to help smaller and medium enterprises with their 5G plans. Wei said that smaller enterprises likely won’t have the in-house expertise and will need to outsource it to others.
However, Hasan said he thinks that certain models will develop for specific vertical industries where large players in those verticals will create directives or set standards that will instruct others how to make use of 5G technology. He likened it to a franchise arrangement. “We are seeing small and large companies work together.”
Rise of the neutral host
Wireless operators may be central to enterprise adoption of 5G, but neutral hosts will likely become a more prolific business because operators will need partners that can help enterprises figure out the right deployment models.
Derek Peterson, CTO of Boingo Wireless, said that enterprises want any type of technology that will reduce friction in their businesses, and neutral hosts can provide that because they can help them figure out whether they need a private 5G network or a public network. “The neutral host is used to trying to balance the needs of different customers,” he said.
But Peterson also believes that enterprises are looking for companies that can help them navigate multiple different wireless technologies, not just 5G. “It’s about understanding what they are trying to do and then helping them take control of their network strategy,” Peterson said. “In the past, enterprises didn’t have any options other than WiFi.”
5G is the first 3GPP-standards based network that really takes advantage of virtualized networking technologies and cloud computing. And those software-based technologies are expected to help operators and enterprises keep their 5G deployment costs down.
“There’s an industry push to reduce the cost of building the network and with the virtualization of the network and the centralized control, it should reduce the network cost over time,” Wei said.
Because of this, many enterprises view 5G as a game-changer because in theory it should help them run their systems more affordably. “Enterprises are interested in 5G because it is cheaper,” said Keddy. “It will make it cheaper for them to run their systems.”