While Wi-Fi is now integrated into nearly every electronic device imaginable, the same cannot yet be said for cellular. This is an issue that weighs heavily on enterprise organizations that are considering the deployment of private 5G radio access networks (RANs) using the CBRS spectrum.
To overcome this problem, 5G vendors and integrators must put more effort into educating prospective customers about which client devices can natively operate on private LTE/5G networks and what alternative cellular data connectivity methods are available that won't break the bank.
Private 5G connectivity from an enterprise IT perspective
For IT architects and decision makers, interest in deploying private 5G networks is currently at an all-time high. Benefits over Wi-Fi include simplified deployments with fewer access points to install, reduced wireless interference, improved roaming capabilities and consistent performance using 5G network slicing techniques.
What may scare some prospective enterprise customers off, however, is when they start to think about how they will accomplish connecting the various PCs, tablets and IoT devices to a private cellular RAN. In many cases, these devices come out of the box with native wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity options – not cellular. Thus, to many, a private 5G RAN is a non-starter as the thought of replacing or retrofitting devices for cellular connectivity may be too steep.
Private 5G connectivity is better than most think
But as the market has quickly evolved, so has the cellular device ecosystem. CBRS-compatible devices are more prevalent than many IT architects may have thought. For example, Apple's iPhone and cellular-capable iPad have had compatibility with private LTE/5G CBRS networks since the launch of the iPhone 11 in 2019 and shortly thereafter with the introduction of the 4th generation iPad Pro in early 2020. Other popular manufacturers including Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, LG and Motorola have also launched various cellular-capable products that can operate natively within the CBRS band 48 spectrum.
While native CBRS PC, smartphone and tablet connectivity options have been available for a while, that doesn't completely solve an enterprise IT department's issue of connecting various non-CBRS compatible devices to a private 5G network. Many IoT and industrial IoT (IIoT) devices such as sensors, cameras, barcode scanners and other endpoints/appliances simply don't offer native cellular connectivity directly out of the box. What's more, many businesses have already made investments in these technologies and the thought of replacing this equipment is out of the question.
This is where 5G-to-Ethernet/Wi-Fi gateways become extremely attractive. There are plenty of enterprise network manufacturers, such as Arris/CommScope, Sierra Wireless, Inseego and Cradlepoint, that have begun rolling out low-cost and compact LTE/5G gateways that backhaul Ethernet/Wi-Fi capable devices to a private cellular RAN. This makes it possible to connect nearly any IP-capable device to a private 5G network with relatively little implementation or management overhead. Additionally, many of the indoor and outdoor deployable 5G gateways can connect multiple devices to a single unit. This reduces any additional capex as businesses consider the overall cost to deploy and operate a 5G cellular network of their own.
Better private 5G device connectivity promotion is needed
While it's unclear if native 5G cellular device compatibility will ever be as prevalent as Wi-Fi, 5G vendors and integrators must begin providing customers with concise and up-to-date information about what products are natively compatible with private CBRS RANs and what alternative options are available to connect non-native devices.
For most enterprise IT shops, cellular technologies are relatively foreign when compared to other network transport methods such as Ethernet and Wi-Fi. If information regarding connectivity options is not concise and readily available, many businesses may pass on private 5G deployments simply based on a lack of understanding when it comes to device connectivity.