MWC 2023 Sees Wi-Fi 7 Ascendant and Enterprise WLAN Vendors Double Down on 5G Private Networks

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By Andrew Spivey | 1Q 2023 | IN-6874

Wi-Fi at MWC 2023 was defined by two core themes—the accelerated arrival of Wi-Fi 7, and further expansion of enterprise Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) vendors into 5G private networks. How will these events impact the industry going forward?

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Two Themes Define Wi-Fi  at MWC 2023


As usual, MWC 2023 was replete with more Wi-Fi and Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN)-related announcements and product unveilings than is possible to list in this ABI Insight, but now that the dust has settled, two clear takeaways from the show have become clear—the accelerated arrival of Wi-Fi 7, and that the major enterprise WLAN vendors are pursuing acquisitions and partnerships as a strategy to raise their 5G private networks competitiveness. The former was widely anticipated, and leading up to the show it was more a question of what (and not if) Wi-Fi 7 products would be on display. The latter, on the other hand, was less of a certainty, and the renewed vigor with which the leading enterprise WLAN vendors are targeting 5G private networks should be viewed as an unambiguous sign that these Information Technology (IT) heavyweights have determined that they are in a strong position to exploit the opportunities the market offers, and of their conviction to position themselves at the forefront of this emerging market.

Breaking Down the Announcements


There was so much Wi-Fi 7-related news at MWC 2023, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the standard had already been certified (in reality, the IEEE’s official release is still more than a year off). Starting with residential infrastructure, notable unveilings included Swiss vendor ADB’s Cheetah, a multi-gigabit Wi-Fi 7 XGS-PON gateway with a maximum throughput of 19 Gigabits per Second (Gbps) and Xiaomi’s tri-band 4x4 Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) Wi-Fi 7 Access Point (AP), the BE7000, which can deliver an aggregated max data rate of 6.9 Gbps. Both of these are powered by Qualcomm’s Networking Pro Platforms—in Xiaomi’s case, the 820, and in Cheetah’s case, the 1220. Huawei launched solutions for both the residential and enterprise sectors, with the OptiXstar V878 for the former (a Wi-Fi 7 XGS-PON ONT gateway with 19.6 Gbps throughput), and the AirEngine 8771-X1T for the latter (which can deliver throughput of 18.7 Gbps). Wi-Fi 7 also reared its head in ZTE’s 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) Gen 5, which helped the product to be able to deliver 21 Gbps speeds for consumers. On the device side, there were laptops from Lenovo, smart TVs, and global releases for a handful of Wi-Fi 7-supporting Chinese smartphones, such as the Xiaomi 13 and 13 Pro. Interestingly though, one of the standout flagship phones introduced at the show, the foldable Honor Magic Vs, will only support dual-band Wi-Fi 6, despite the fact that the previously announced Honor Magic 5 Pro will be Wi-Fi 7-enabled. As for when we will see Wi-Fi 7 being deployed, eyes are now on South Korean operator KT, which declared its intention to develop and deploy a Wi-Fi 7 AP alongside its signing of a joint agreement with Intel to promote Wi-Fi 7.

The second key theme at MWC 2023 was further advances by the major WLAN enterprise vendors into the 5G private networks space. The first piece of news came on the eve of the show, as Aruba parent Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) announced its purchase of Italian private cellular technology provider Athonet. HPE intends to incorporate Athonet’s private networking capabilities with Aruba’s existing WLAN networking portfolio so that it can offer enterprises the coverage, mobility, security, and reliability of cellular alongside the familiarity, cost-effectiveness, and high capacity of WLAN. The expanded capabilities will also allow them to break into new markets, such as industrial manufacturing environments, with Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). This news was followed soon after by the announcement that Cisco and NTT plan to collaborate both on 5G private network innovation and on bringing the technology to market. The pair aim to develop a 5G private network solution that will integrate seamlessly with customers’ pre-existing WLAN (alongside Local Area Network (LAN), Wide Area Network (WAN), and cloud) infrastructure, and will be delivered through NTT’s managed Private 5G solution, alongside Intel hardware. They are targeting a broad spread of industries, including the automotive, healthcare, retail, logistics, and public sectors, and there are reportedly several customer deployments already underway.

How Will the Industry Be Impacted?


The prominence of Wi-Fi 7 at MWC further reinforces the accelerated arrival of the protocol and, even in 2023, the year prior to the standard’s official release, total global Wi-Fi 7 AP shipments are expected to reach 3.1 million. This highlighting of Wi-Fi 7 also foreshadows the rapid devaluing of Wi-Fi 6E, which has quickly gone from the most advanced protocol on the market to one representing entry-level Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum access. Accordingly, Wi-Fi 6E AP shipments are projected to peak as early as 2024 at 24.2 million, contracting afterward to 19 million in 2025, when they will have been surpassed by the 39.6 million Wi-Fi 7 shipments. Reflecting the shifting value-proposition of Wi-Fi 6E, many of the APs supporting this protocol at MWC 2023 were mid-range pieces of equipment with the main feature being proprietary algorithms or unique designs. For example, alongside showcasing a high-end Wi-Fi 7 AP, D-Link also introduced its AQUILA PRO AI series of Wi-Fi 6 & Wi-Fi 6E mesh routers, which spanned the entry-level dual-band Wi-Fi 6 M30 AX3000 to the mid-range tri-band Wi-Fi 6E M78 AX7800. The most notable aspects of these mesh APs were support for the new Matter Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity protocol, the advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) features they ship with (including AI Wi-Fi, mesh, and traffic optimizers), and their distinctive designs, which have the appearance of stingrays with their wings flapping upward. Wi-Fi 6 APs were even more scant, with one of the few notable examples from the show being OPPO’s first router, the dual-band Wi-Fi 6 Router AX5400, which also captured attention with an avant-garde design, this time resembling an empty plastic water jug with four antennas stored inside, and the ability to improve data rates with the OPPO devices they connect with by up to 20%. By next year’s MWC, Wi-Fi 7 will have secured the high-end Wi-Fi AP market, with Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E offering entry-level and mid-range dual-band and tri-band access, respectively.

Moving on to 5G private networks, it was exactly a year ago, at MWC 2022, that both Cisco and Aruba first announced their initial Private 5G solutions. Cisco’s original platform was a subscription-based solution built off its own mobile core technologies, while Aruba’s offering was built on the HPE 5G core stack, made available as-a-Service via the HPE GreenLake solution. This had been developed through partnerships with firms such as Airspan Networks for radio capabilities and JMA Wireless cellular networking hardware. The market opportunities in 5G private networks are considerable—with global revenue projected to expand exponentially from US$10.5 billion in 2024 to just shy of US$100 billion in 2030—and the determination to capture a portion of the market has led Aruba and Cisco to pursue a strategy of acquisitions and partnerships to augment their 5G capabilities. The purchase and integration of Athonet was a wise choice for Aruba, as the company has more than 15 years’ experience providing 4G and 5G mobile core solutions to enterprises and Communication Service Providers (CSPs) globally across a diverse array of sectors, from airports and hospitals to transportation ports and government sites. Cisco’s partnership with NTT, on the other hand, is an expansion of a deep and long-standing one, with the latter serving as a system integrator for Cisco’s solutions on numerous projects in the past. With regard to 5G private networks, the two companies’ portfolios complement each other perfectly, and together they are well positioned to deliver a high-performance, secure, and reliable 5G private network integrated with WLAN.

By pursuing 5G private networks strategies, Cisco and Aruba clearly believe that they have an inherent advantage over the competition. To start, they (rightly) believe that private networks consisting of fully integrated Wi-Fi and 5G will have significant benefits over those of solely the former, due to having the best attributes of both technologies, being more competitively priced, and being able to offer IT administrators the ability to manage both the Wi-Fi and 5G networks through one single pane of glass. At the same time, the expansion into cellular private networks will also help raise the value proposition of their traditional WLAN portfolios, as 5G services can be easily integrated with them. This is not the only consideration though, as the extensive experience both firms have selling into the enterprise sector also provides them with a strong platform from which to expand their business into the private networks space. Enterprises’ trust and familiarity with these vendors and their solutions, alongside the ability to integrate existing deployments with their Private 5G solutions (and vice versa), will help them win many contracts. There is one final key rational for why Cisco and Aruba wish to further grow their influence in 5G private networks. As the market is still in its infancy, by getting involved early, Cisco and Aruba can help reinforce the notion that 5G private networks will integrate and coexist with WLANs, rather than be a replacement for them.