Wireless LAN vendors at Hanover Messe 2023 reinforced the technology’s role in OT whilst at the same time underselling its potential.
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New Strategies and Old Assumptions
Wireless LAN (WLAN) at Hanover Messe 2023 was defined by two core trends. The first was the determination of the two main IT connectivity vendors to penetrate deeper into the OT market, although they presented differing strategies for how they would achieve this goal. The second was a general lack of vision for how the latest WLAN advancements could disrupt OT, a missed opportunity given the potential of standard power 6 GHz and Wi-Fi 7. This latter trend is likely a result of an entrenched assumption that it will be 5G alone that will drive the next wave of wireless connectivity innovation in OT, and that only through convergence can WLAN remain relevant. The first trend offers us a glimpse of WLAN’s future in OT, whilst the second suggests that WLAN vendors as a whole need to do a better job of promoting WLAN’s evolving value proposition for OT.
Key Wireless LAN Takeaways from Hanover Messe 2023
Divergent OT Strategies Emerge Between IT Connectivity Juggernauts
The sponsorship of Hanover Messe 2023 by the predominant enterprise connectivity vendor Cisco, and the dominant central position of second largest HPE’s impressive booth, contrasts sharply with the absence of both brands from the most recent iteration of the show’s North American counterpart, IMTS 2022. Whilst this partly reflects the nature of Hanover Messe (which has a greater focus on technology than IMTS), it also highlights the strong intentions both have to expand further into the OT market. The core message of both vendors was similar - that they are bringing new solutions to the market which will enhance their OT credentials – but a clear divergence was discernable between their respective strategies. Cisco’s OT proposition is to offer an extension of its proprietary Ultra-Reliable Wireless Backhaul technology (URWB, acquired through purchase of Fluidmesh in 2020) deeper into the OT network via a new OT client the Catalyst IW9165E, which has been engineered for mobile mission critical applications such as Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs). In contrast, HPE is building its OT package around an open system, but has purchased 5G Private Networks provider Athonet in order to take control of the 5G networking component. The expanding of Cisco’s URWB technology to clients has a lot to offer OT environments, not least latency less than 10ms and zero packet loss with seamless handover, but a reliance on proprietary technology poses serious interoperability challenges with both existing and third-party network infrastructure. HPE on the other hand will continue to rely on partners for OT clients, but with their new in-house 5G capabilities they believe that they can offer a greater level of WLAN/5G integration and avoid divergent aims between themselves and their 5G integrator partner.
Each approach has its own merits, but whereas HPE’s solution will have greater interoperability with the broader ecosystem, being able to sit on top of existing deployments, Cisco’s URWB clients will necessitate a URWB compatible network backbone from Cisco. Cisco has a history of introducing walled garden solutions, but they have not always been met with success. As recently as 2020 Cisco was compelled to hand over its proprietary zero-touch provisioning and onboarding technology OpenRoaming to the Wireless Broadband Alliance, so that it could be converted into an open industry standard. This was an implicit acknowledgement that proprietary closed technologies were not viable in multi-vendor environments, and Cisco may well face a similar realization with UWRB. Further adding to the challenge is the fact that Cisco is new entrant to the OT client market, and with only one (relatively large) product currently available, they will likely struggle to meet the strong customization component required for specific OT use cases. That said, having an open system won’t mean that it will be smooth sailing for HPE, as successfully integrating Athonet will be a complex and drawn-out process, and the company will need to successfully convince the market that their integrated solution can provide additional value over competing options (including Cisco’s solution delivered through a close partnership with NTT). It will surely be a tough journey for both companies, but by next year’s Hanover Messe hopefully we will likely have an indication of which strategy was the wiser choice.
Beware of Placing All Eggs in the 5G Basket
It was pleasing to see that the acrimonious competition which has often defined the WLAN/5G relationship in recent years has now given way to more measured discussions of how the two technologies will instead complement each other. Yet this focus on how the convergence of WLAN and 5G will drive innovation in industrial wireless connectivity has been at the expense of WLAN itself. Across virtually all vendors at the show there was limited demonstration of how new developments in WLAN – most notably standard power 6 GHz, but also features such as 4K QAM and Multi-Link Operation (MLO) – could revolutionize WLAN in OT. This acts to undersell WLAN as an OT connectivity solution, because a focus on how 5G will compliment WLAN inevitably overshadows the advancements to WLAN which are raising its value-proposition vis-à-vis 5G and allowing it to handle a greater array of OT use cases.
The limited discussion around standard power 6 GHz is an especially disappointing oversight, given the technology’s imminent arrival. In the US the FCC is on track for a 4Q 2023 authorization for Automated Frequency Coordination systems (AFC, essentially database lookup schemes to certify 6 GHz transmissions won’t interfere with incumbents) and other markets including Canada, Brazil and South Korea are expected to soon follow. These will permit higher power 6 GHz transmissions and external antennas – unlocking for OT environments higher throughputs, lower latencies, and greater capacity with WLAN. Yet for all the promise of standard power 6 GHz, it barely featured in any of the main WLAN vendor stands. Standard power 6 GHz will undoubtedly be addressed at next year’s Hanover Messe, but deeper coverage at this year’s show would have helped drum up excitement for it’s potential, and also provided vendors the opportunity to position their products at the forefront of the new technology.
Gearing Up for Hanover Messe 2024
Although Hanover Messe 2023 has just wrapped up, in order to make a big impact at next year’s iteration WLAN vendors and the broader WLAN industry should start preparing now. Here are some suggestions to consider for Hanover Messe 2024:
- Don’t buy the 5G hype: Whilst WLAN’s convergence with 5G will create additional opportunities and spur great innovation, as outlined above, the power of WLAN itself should not be understated.
- Representation by industry bodies: Whilst 5G has the 5G-ACIA, there was no equivalent industry body representing WLAN at Hanover Messe. Optically this damages WLAN’s image, as it implies that unlike 5G the technology is not optimized for OT. In the future an industry body involved with industrial WLAN should attend to share latest technology updates, showcase industrial trials, and represent member companies. One potential industry body is the Wireless Broadband Alliance, which maintains relevant work groups like Wi-Fi 6/6E for Industrial IoT.
- Highlight new use cases: Consumer perceptions of WLAN and its potential must also evolve alongside the development of the technology’s capabilities. Industrial WLAN vendors should partner with industrial machine and robotics manufacturers to exhibit some of the new applications which the latest advancements of WLAN can manage. This will boost confidence in WLAN and highlight for consumers new and innovative use cases which WLAN could be applied to.
- Showcase emerging technologies: Whilst they may not yet be mature, innovative new 802.11 technologies such as Wi-Fi HaLow and Wi-Fi Sensing should still use Hanover Messe as a platform to raise their profile and highlight their industrial applications. For example, the attributes of Wi-Fi HaLow make it one of the best placed solutions for industrial vibration monitoring, as competing low-power, wide-area technologies like LoRa cannot provide sufficient throughput to carry the required data, while low-power, short-range technologies relying on the 2.4 GHz spectrum such as Bluetooth do not perform well in harsh industrial environments.
- Room for more: Given the scale and reach of Hanover Messe – being the world’s premier industrial technology expo – it was a shame that there were many WLAN vendors with OT offerings which were absent from the show, such as Juniper Networks and Extreme Networks. Such vendors should craft clear messages for Hanover Messe 2024 on what they can offer industrial networking. For example, Juniper Networks would do well to highlight its work converging cybersecurity visibility across the IT and OT domains through its joint partnership with Dragos.