Crossing the streams: Cisco’s private 5G entices with a blend of Wi-Fi, IoT and operational tech

Crossing the streams: Cisco’s private 5G entices with a blend of Wi-Fi, IoT and operational tech

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After years of hearing “it’s coming” from numerous industry vendors, 5G is finally arriving for consumers and enterprises alike. With Cisco’s entry into private 5G, the networking giant is seeking to gain a foothold in a 5G infrastructure market that grew 39% in 2021, according to Gartner Inc.

In the original 1984 “Ghostbusters” film, the ghost-catching protagonists ignore warnings against crossing the streams of their proton weapons to defeat a malicious apparition. Like the movie’s climatic scene, Cisco is basing its market strategy on a belief that it’s okay to cross the streams, that a solution which converges multiple solutions in a simplified deployment model will push 5G networks to the next level.

“Private 5G is going to be really important,” said Mohini Dukes, senior director analyst at Gartner, in an interview with SiliconANGLE. “I would see Cisco as being a bridge between different technologies such as Wi-Fi, IoT and 5G.” (* Disclosure below.)

Open radio access

Cisco is launching its private network at a time when 5G deployment is heating up. There are currently 187 operators that have launched 5G services in 72 countries, and the Global Mobile Suppliers Association forecasted that more than 200 commercial 5G networks will have been deployed in 2021.

Following the announcement of its private 5G offering in early February, Cisco provided additional details during the recent Mobile World Congress gathering in Barcelona. The company indicated that private 5G would be delivered as-a-service, with multiple 5G pilots and projects already underway.

Cisco also announced that it would work in close collaboration with Open Radio Access Network vendors Airspan and JMA to deliver its solution. Radio access networks connect base stations that process traffic between endpoints, such as laptops and smartphones. O-RAN is a collaboration of equipment vendors and telcos to create common standards and avoid interoperability issues.

Large enterprises prefer O-RAN because the adoption of private, wireless networks can be an expensive proposition. Deployment of 5G architecture requires more dedicated base stations for coverage, and companies in the space are looking for solutions that will reduce capital expense. O-RAN offers the opportunity to enable interoperability between cell tower subsystems from different suppliers and servers from multiple vendors.

O-RAN also offers another key advantage: It provides a foundation for information technology and operational technology convergence.

Its architecture virtualizes portions of cell networks that handle specialized software and hardware. This includes real-time functions, such as load-balancing, along with policy management and analytics. Data-centric IT systems and device monitoring OT functions are meeting at the edge, and 5G is poised to be the glue layer that will make this infrastructure function.

“The ability to overlay services that can be customized for verticals on top of connectivity is transformational,” Dukes explained. “5G enables enterprises to digitally drive business outcomes, and that is going to be really important for the enterprise.”

Separate role for Wi-Fi

Cisco’s O-RAN alliances and preparation for IT/OT convergence are part of a broader strategic conclusion that the enterprise will desire an entry path away from dependence solely on Wi-Fi for mobile solutions.

Examples that validate this approach are already beginning to appear. One startup that has been pioneering private mobile networks is Celona Inc., and California State University Stanislaus is one of its customers. The school deployed a private 5G network to support remote learning and faculty research. Wi-Fi is backhauled over 5G and reserved primarily for students on different spectrum.

“Ad hoc network connectivity can be provided by Wi-Fi, whereas mission-critical connectivity is better suited for private 5G,” said SiliconANGLE contributor and industry analyst Zeus Kerravala in a recent post about Celona. “There is more control over the quality of service (QoS) with private 5G because it’s clean spectrum and very infrastructure dependent.”

In an article for SiliconANGLE back in 2020, Kerravala wrote that “if 5G is to make a dent in Wi-Fi, the industry needs a company such as Celona — a company that’s building 5G infrastructure specifically for the needs of the enterprise.”

Building a competitive position

There is a natural question to be asked about Cisco’s entry into the private 5G market: Where does this leave the major carriers who collectively just spent $81 billion to participate in the 5G space?

Cisco has offered an answer to this as it carefully positioned the firm’s private 5G offering. In a blog post released during the initial announcement in early February, Masum Mir, vice president and general manager of the Cable & Mobile Business Unit at Cisco, made it clear that the company was taking a point of view divergent from that of the telcos.

“We believe the competitors are going about it the wrong way,” Mir said. “They would have you adopt a complex, carrier-centric 5G solution that’s radically different from what you already know and use. Some even ignore Wi-Fi entirely.”

The message here is that carriers might know all about 5G and mobile solutions, but Cisco understands enterprise needs and the pain points of cost and complexity that can plague networks. Companies want to seamlessly integrate many of the tools used to run infrastructure into a robust 5G framework, and Cisco is showcasing its expertise in meeting enterprise demands.

“Enterprises have different expectations; they require granularity of services and reliability,” Dukes said. “Cisco is trying to bring all of their different building blocks together in the 5G construct. They bring the enterprise networking view to private 5G.”

To succeed in its private 5G strategy, Cisco will have to rise above the competitive clamor. Amazon Web Services Inc. announced its private 5G product last year, and its solution is already in use within Amazon’s vast network of fulfillment centers.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. generated its own news during MWC in February with the launch of HPE Private 5G, using GreenLake as the consumption model for delivery. Qualcomm Inc. and Microsoft announced a partnership for a private 5G offering that leverages the chipmaker’s 5G platform and Azure Cloud.

Cisco unveiled a set of partnerships as part of its private 5G rollout. These include alliances with Virgin Media O2, Zebra Technologies, Toshiba and Texas A&M University.

“What Cisco is trying to do is build their ecosystem, like other entities in this landscape,” Dukes said. “5G is this huge framework with a lot of different pieces to it. 5G and private 5G are just getting started, and there is plenty of opportunity in this nascent space.”

During a recent event, Cisco also laid out its plans for hybrid cloud simplicity with the companies latest HyperFlex and X-Series releases.

(* Disclosure: This article is part of a series done in partnership with Cisco Systems Inc. Neither Cisco nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Image: Getty Images

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