Today's big news from the FCC is that it will open up 6 GHz to Wi-Fi and other unlicensed uses. The FCC authorizes "1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band (5.925–7.125 GHz) available for unlicensed use," and further explains that it authorizes "standard-power devices in 850 megahertz in the 6 GHz band. An automated frequency coordination system will prevent standard power access points from operating where they could cause interference to incumbent services." We see that this vote is very beneficial to Wi-Fi chip and systems companies that serve both consumer and enterprise markets. We also expect that outdoor systems that take advantage of this new spectrum may benefit wireless ISPs (WISPs) and their equipment suppliers. And, also, the FCC's statement that an automated frequency coordination (AFC) system will be used to prevent interference from existing microwave transmission systems. With that background, we have compiled a list of companies that will benefit from the FCC's vote.
WLAN Semiconductor companies Broadcom, Qualcomm, ON Semi, Celeno, and Intel. In our research of the WLAN Infrastructure semiconductor market, these are the vendors we expect to sell Wi-Fi radio chips to devices such as Access Points, Broadband Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) with WLAN, and Consumer Routers. A new class of Wi-Fi that takes advantage of 6 GHz is now called Wi-Fi 6E. Broadcom and Qualcomm have already made statements about Wi-Fi 6E in the past month or two, and others somewhat more recently. Historically, Broadcom and Qualcomm have enjoyed significant market shares of the enterprise WLAN Access Point market, while players in the consumer AP/router/CPE have included a wider list of players including Broadcom, Qualcomm, ON Semi (formerly Quantenna), Celeno, Intel, Realtek, Mediatek and others.
Enterprise WLAN companies Cisco, HPE Aruba, Commscope, Extreme Networks and Juniper. While each of these companies has launched Wi-Fi 6 products over the past couple of years that operate in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, we expect this group of companies to release Wi-Fi 6E products that connect over 6 GHz over the next year. We expect initially that 6E enterprise products will sit at the high end of product portfolios, selling at higher prices than 5 GHz and lower products. The FCC commented in today's press release that "The notice also seeks comment on increasing the power at which low-power indoor access points may operate," which means that there is still some work to do in figuring out whether these Wi-Fi 6E devices can operate at powers levels more common in enterprises without needing to connect to an AFC. We are sure there is more to come on this topic.
Consumer WLAN Infrastructure companies NETGEAR, Commscope, Technicolor, Amazon and Google. We expect NETGEAR to be an aggressive player in Wi-Fi 6E, just as it released super high-end Wi-Fi 6 products in its Nighthawk product line. We expect Broadband CPE vendors such as Commscope (through its Arris brand), Technicolor and others to benefit as they seek to capitalize on the new spectrum, which should allow the delivery of Wi-Fi at higher speeds and to more devices in the home. We wouldn't be surprised to see consumer mesh vendors such as Amazon (through its eero acquisition) and Google to offer Wi-Fi 6E products, but these probably come a bit later than traditional router and Broadband CPE devices.
Wireless ISPs such as Etheric Networks and Common Networks (both located near the 650 area code that we used to name our company, 650 Group) will likely benefit as they will be able to offer new WISP services over the new 6 GHz spectrum. Since the spectrum is new, essentially unused and there's lots of it, we expect that these, and other WISPs in the US market, can benefit by expanding beyond the current unlicensed spectrums commonly used today, such as 60 GHz, 5 GHz, 2.4 GHz and 900 MHz spectrums. We think it might take a year or two before the WISPs can capitalize on these spectrums, but we see it as a windfall.
WISP suppliers such as Ubiquiti Networks, Cambium Networks, Airspan, and others will be likely beneficiaries. These suppliers sell to WISPs and other operators to enable "last mile" services that compete with fixed-line broadband services such as cable modem, DSL and PON. As we alluded to above, the 5 GHz spectrum is quite crowded, and thus, as 6 GHz becomes available for outdoor use, we expect that a new class of equipment will take advantage of this ample spectrum to deliver broadband to a more significant number of business and consumers. The FCC has a "goal of making broadband connectivity available to all Americans, especially those in rural and underserved areas," according to its 6 GHz press release today, and we see WISPs as one of the main constituents of serving this goal.
Mobile network operators AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular. Similar to WISPs, we expect that mobile operators will eventually leverage 6 GHz to deliver Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) services (and potentially mobile services) to consumers and businesses. In suburban and rural areas, we have already seen some operators, notably Verizon, deploy FWA in licensed mmWave spectrum (in 20 GHz and 40 GHz ranges) - we have seen operators pare back on plans to deliver services, though they haven't stopped deployments or anything. But, we see 6 GHz could puff some new life into FWA plans because this is a lot of new frequency and since it is lower frequency than mmWave, does not suffer as much from immovable obstacles such as tree leaves, windows and precipitation. Additionally, we see mobile services could benefit as well, as we have already seen operators such as AT&T leverage 5 GHz unlicensed spectrum in delivering mobile service on its small cells in locations such as New York City, so we would expect mobile operators to eventually take advantage of 6 GHz in a similar fashion. But, incumbent services (point to point microwave systems) are more likely to interfere with mobile operators' plans in urban areas, where paradoxically, there is more need for this extra bandwidth, so we think operators will take some time to sort this interference out.
AFC services operators such as Federated Wireless. Given that the FCC announced a specific need for AFC services in its media blitz today (see above), we point out that Federated Wireless has already announced an AFC service. Just as Federated has competition in its CBRS SAS service from players such as Commscope, we would not be surprised to see new competition in AFC services.
ORAN and CBRS were the main themes at Mobile World Congress Americas, held in Los Angeles. I have to say, though, that unlicensed was the third most important theme, though it will emerge to the main stage in future years.
ORAN encompasses several topics woven together. ORAN is a set of common interfaces that describe how various devices in mobile RAN work together. ORAN may also represent a new way of building radio networks. Recently, new vendors are being invited to bid on major mobile network projects, including Mavenir, Altiostar, Parallel and others. And, the major market share players in mobile RAN, which include Ericsson, Nokia, Huawei, Samsung, and ZTE are being asked by operators to support ORAN. The incumbent vendors are responding in various ways: Samsung, a challenger in the market, has whole-heartedly embraced ORAN, while Huawei has only recently acknowledged the existence of ORAN. Ericsson and Nokia have embraced ORAN with the view to embrace and extend - in the sense that Microsoft used this term in the 1990s. Based on presentations made by Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung, we expect that the incumbents, Ericsson and Nokia,will embrace ORAN but will establish a path to continue serving customers with the same vertically integrated business models of today. We are eager to see the results of mobile network operator bidding to observe how many startups win projects for wide scale deployment.
CBRS. Today, CBRS is available in the US market and has been so for about a month. We had an interesting opportunity to moderate three panels on the stage at MWCa and found some very interesting indoor/campus uses for CBRS, including WiFi backhaul, secure/critical communications, surveillance, IoT/sensor monitoring. Since CBRS indoor spectrum generally allows for more output power than for WiFi, the range is better. We see this as a key advantage for CBRS users, though enterprises who take advantage of the so-called OnGo service must pay various monthly fees such as those for the SAS and potentially other ongoing services. We expect that CBRS will be successful in certain verticals.
Unlicensed. We believe the existence of CBRS could uncork the value of unlicensed spectrum at 900 MHz, 5 GHz, 2.4 GHz, and 6 GHz. We are conducting significant research into each of these and other spectrums.
We attended the Mobile World Congress last week in Barcelona along with an estimated 104,00 others from nearly every country in the world. We met with over 42 companies and nearly 200 people at the show and attended many press announcements. While most of the MWC19 headlines were about 5G, we were struck that much of the hyped growth will in fact be the result of deployments in enterprises and could be served using unlicensed (or lightly licensed) spectrum. Many of the presentations and product announcements suggested as much, if you read between the lines. We'll step through these two, enterprise and unlicensed next.
The Enterprise opportunity. A major theme we picked up at the Mobile World Congress show is simple: that for the mobile telecom market to grow, 5G must expand to the enterprise. We see ample evidence that without an expansion to the enterprise, the cellular market as we know it will likely experience declines as consumers expect more bandwidth for less in the future. The 5G narrative at the MWC19 show was straightforward: German & Chinese robots, trucks and drones need 5G to unlock the potential for future growth. There were robots, drones and trucks bleeping and whirring to make the point for visitors. We wouldn't argue with the contention that robots and very fast moving vehicles that are controlled remotely need very low latency; yet, there are so many use cases that don't actually need such low latencies.
Wireless is just a small part of "Enterprise." Enterprise 5G use cases being presented at MWC, including the wirelessly controlled robot, involved far more than just a wireless connection to succeed. To automate a workplace with robots, there is far more technology that has to be brought to market, including software, integration, wireline networking and the list goes on. None of these capabilities have traditionally been delivered by telecom equipment vendors; they have been delivered by vendors who have served the enterprise market (examples would be Cisco, IBM, Oracle, etc.).
Unlicensed Opportunity is Robust. In both the enterprise market and the outdoor market, unlicensed spectrum has tremendous potential. This goes for a) WiFi, which is already immensely popular, b) for in-building 'lightly licensed' CBRS (a US-only market), c) the soon-to-be released 6 Ghz spectrum, as well as d) outdoor mid-band spectrum like 5 Ghz (already very popular), e) outdoor 60 Ghz (like the kind relating to the Facebook Terragraph project) and f) 900 Mhz LoRa. While each of these unlicensed (or lightly licensed) frequencies was discussed at the show, 5G licensed was so overwhelmingly promoted it was hard for these exciting unlicensed markets to get any airtime. We think this lack coverage relatively speaking is a dis-service and we'll touch on just a few of them in this post.
Wi-Fi isn't going away. Related to the enterprise 5G topic, we found points and counterpoints about 5G versus WiFi interesting. Huawei's Enterprise group issued a press release about its 802.11ax (WiFi-6) expectations and how important WiFi is for the enterprise market. On the other hand, Huawei's telecom group was pursuing a press agenda about partnering with Operators to pursue the 5G market. Few companies on earth possess as broad a produt portfolio as Huawei, who has ample expertise, market share and credibility in both the mobile wireless market and the enterprise wireless market. We felt this dual-message (5g AND WiFi) was well-balanced. On the other hand, vendors and operators who have historically focused on cellular-only were pushing a "5G will displace WiFi" or at least a "5G is the only solution for mission critical enterprise" agenda. We feel that 5G-only in the enterprise message is to broad-based; we think 5G in the enterprise is far more nuanced because:
802.11ax/WiFi-6 is cellular-like. 802.11ax, which was launched commercially in 4Q18, incorporates many cellular-like capabilities. Many of the technical merits debates presented at MWC compared older 802.11ac WiFi against LTE and 5G NR. This is not a fair comparison because both 5G NR and 802.11ax actually began shipping commercially generally at the same time (4Q18 and 1Q19).
There is very little overlap between the Wi-Fi opportunity and that for cellular. The overlap in opportunities being discussed as the 5G enterprise opportunity at MWC have surprisingly little overlap with the vertical industries currently being served by Enterprise-class WiFi. Take manufacturing, which represents 9% of the Enterprise WLAN market by units in 4Q18. Or the outdoor WLAN market, which is only 3% of total Enterprise-class market in 4Q18 by shipments. The point is, there is very little overlap between the Enterprise WLAN market and the 5G enterprise market being discussed at MWC.
LTE will be the workhorse for many years. Additionally, let's consider the fact that many of the use-cases being discussed at MWC will initially be served by LTE, not 5G. In the enterprise market, the use of LTE in unlicensed (or lightly licensed, like the US's CBRS) bands is often called private LTE. The main difference between unlicensed LTE and licensed LTE is that with unlicensed, the enterprise can work directly with enterprise-focused VARs, resllers, solutions providers and complementary equipment suppliers, while with licensed LTE, the enterprise will need to work directly with its local mobile service provider who owns the spectrum, likely ensuring that the operators becomes the prime integrator of the project, or at least part of it. Private LTE will therefore have fewer parties involved (no operator), lower monthly costs (no operator) and will likely get the project to completion faster (fewer parties and a prime vendor/contractor/solutions-provider with expertise in the enterprise's vertical market). So, why not consider unlicensed/lightly-licensed LTE instead of licensed 5G to achieve the goals illustrated in many of the 5G use cases at MWC?
Where will WiFi lose out? If it has wheels or wings on it, Wi-Fi is not your friend - look to cellular.
To conclude, yes, 5G will fit some very exciting use-cases, especially those for low-latency applications. These are indeed exciting and deserve attention. We see it this way for the wireless industry: if the things involved have wheels or wings, or are of such high value that you must use cellular, there's a good chance LTE will cut it. And next, it makes sense to consider using unlicensed spectrum - which is just emerging as viable for many uses.