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Cisco CEO: WiFi 6 Shouldn't Be Ignored Amid 5G Hype

BARCELONA -- MWC19 -- Cisco's CEO used his keynote appearance here at Mobile World Congress to make a plea to wireless executives to not forget about WiFi as they push toward 5G.

"WiFi 6 and 5G are made to work together," Cisco's Chuck Robbins said.

Specifically, he said that enterprise customers have already made substantial investments into WiFi technology via private corporate networks, and will likely continue that effort amid 5G buildouts. He said wireless operators and other players in the cellular industry would be remiss to ignore WiFi technology as they work to sell 5G connections.

"These are both domains that we have to bring together," Robbins said, adding that "we as an industry have not done a good job at that."

Indeed, the vast majority of the noise here at MWC has been around initial 5G buildouts, and what the technology might enable in the future, from autonomous cars to remote surgery. That makes sense, of course, considering MWC is hosted by the GSM Association (GSMA), the global trade group for the cellular industry. But Robbins's call for the industry to pay attention to WiFi -- and specifically the latest iteration of the technology, WiFi 6 -- is worth noting since he devoted his keynote appearance here to the message, even though Cisco too has built a major business around the sale of 5G technology to wireless network operators.

In his presentation, Robbins pointed out that a GSMA survey of wireless network operators found that fully 70% of providers are hoping to make revenues from the sale of 5G connections to enterprises. And Robbins added that Cisco itself attributes 75% of its revenues from the sale of technology to enterprises. (Cisco also has made substantial investments into WiFi through acquisitions over the years like Meraki and July Systems, and as a result operates a significant WiFi-based business.)

To be clear, Robbins isn't the only wireless executive calling for the cellular industry to find ways to integrate WiFi and WiFi 6 specifically into 5G. For example, two industry bodies, the NGMN and Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), recently discussed the possibility of the convergence of 3GPP technologies and WiFi "including tighter integration of WiFi access in 5G networks, network manageability and policy control, and the enablement of WiFi-only devices."

That's already happening, to some degree. AT&T just announced a major WiFi offloading deal with Boingo.

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But, considering 5G and WiFi trace different lineages, there remains a decided undercurrent of animosity between the industries that have been built around the two technologies.

For example: "VR is much much more suitable to #wifi and #WiGig than anything 5G. Why spend billions when you can do the same with a low-cost router & fibre broadband," Claus Hetting, CEO of WiFi advocacy group WiFi Now, Tweeted recently. "mmWave to the phone is a non starter."

Robbins, for his part, argued that enterprises will want to leverage both WiFi and 5G as they work to connect both employees and IoT systems. For example, Robbins argued that business customers will be keen to apply a single security protocol across both 5G and WiFi, and that Cisco and other players in the space will need to look for partnerships that will support such services. (Not surprisingly, Robbins acknowledged that Cisco has made some advancements in this area already with its "intent-based networking" product, and he pointed to Cisco's recent deal with Verizon for 5G-powered SD-WAN services for the enterprise as evidence of its momentum in the space.)

But, at the outset of his appearance, Robbins made sure to play to his audience with comments around the importance of 5G. "The [5G] hype is going to be reflected by the reality," he said.

And Robbins said that 5G should power a range of services, including the "killer app" of allowing his teenage son to set up a hotspot with 20 friends so they could all play the online shooting game Fortnite.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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