What’s coming to wireless and broadband networks in 2021

Originally Published by CARTT
Author: Lynn Greiner 

The first several weeks of every year are usually devoted to studying and predicting market trends, despite the fact technology is moving so fast it’s hard to predict next week, let alone the entire year. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Cartt.ca asked Rob Barton, chief architect at Cisco Canada, for his take on telecom in 2021. Here’s what he told us.


“It’s good to see that everyone is excited about 5G and they want to move into it and see the benefits,” he said. “Obviously, the ability to do 10-gig throughput with low latency, like one millisecond latency, that’s really key. I think.” But he doesn’t think it will be as important for consumer smartphones as it will be for use on an access network.

“Looking at longer term trends,” he went on, “we went from a world where we would connect remote sites, remote branches through things like frame relay or an ATM (asynchronous transfer mode) 20 years ago, and then we moved to MPLS (multiprotocol label switching). Now we’re getting to the point where you started to ask, can I just use 5G as my backhaul to a physical location?” He pointed out benefits like the ability to roam from cell tower to cell tower if there’s an outage, up to 10-gig speed with low latency, and perhaps most important, the slicing capability that allows devices and user types to each get custom capabilities and SLAs (service level agreements).

“I definitely think we’re going to see 5G used a lot more ubiquitously than any other cellular technology, especially in the backhaul arena,” he said. However, when 5G is released, all of the touted potential functionality will not be available on Day One, but the platform on which to create it will be present, he explained.

Millimeter wave has a lot of promise, too, but Barton doesn’t think a lot of people understand the downside – extremely limited range and can’t penetrate walls, or glass.

In addition, Barton said the full potential can’t be realized with non-standalone (NSA) networks that support 5G as well as LTE. Standalone (SA) 5G networks that only support the new technology will allow full functionality including slice management and the capabilities of distributed radio networks.

“We see a ton of excitement when a carrier says, ‘hey, we’ve got 5G, we’re the fastest 5G carrier in the country, we’ve got the most number of towers’,” he noted. “That’s great. But you know, with a grain of salt, it’s also hybrid; you’re making baby steps towards full 5G, and the virtualization of those components.”

Another trend Barton has observed is the move into private cellular networks. In the U.S., he’s seen the government, the Navy, and NASA issuing RFPs for the construction of private 5G infrastructure. They will either buy spectrum or sublease it from a carrier (in Germany, the government is already granting spectrum directly to private enterprises for campus networks).

“There’s a real application for this,” Barton explained. “If you look in Canada for example, some of the big mining operations throughout the north of the country or the oil fields in Alberta… don’t have cell towers from Telus or Bell or Rogers. These companies have a vested interest in connectivity, in connecting to vehicles, people or wellheads, or whatever, so they’re going to build their own cellular infrastructure and there’s a lot of potential in the market for us and our competitors around private 5G.

“It’s not just building a bubble of cellular, it allows you to deeply connect with the enterprise network. So, you may have a Wi-Fi 6 network that’s been deployed, but at a certain point, I’m going to roll off of Wi-Fi 6, because I’m getting too far away from it. And now I’m going to go into 5G and have those kinds of capabilities, but I still want the same identity management and security management and telemetry from the network that I would get on the enterprise. I think this is opening up a new sort of world for how we integrate private cellular directly into the enterprise,” Barton added.

He also pointed out companies in the EU have much easier access to cheap spectrum than those in the Americas, where the carriers have scooped up most of it. That means European organizations will likely lead the way in private 5G deployments.


A lack of accessible, affordable, ubiquitous broadband is a big problem, Barton observed, and it’s more widespread than people think.

“I woke up to this myself, at the start of Covid, when Cisco shut all of our offices globally, and we all went to work at home. All of a sudden, there were a lot of my colleagues when every time I’m on a call with them… nothing works,” he said. “It really surprised me how many pockets of broadband issues there are, and I think the world has woken up to this. Prior to Covid people swept it under the rug, and they would say, ‘we’ll get by’, but now when business continuity requires you to work at home and you don’t have good broadband, there’s a real problem. It has exposed this problem that was never really looked at before and I think maybe Covid will be the thing that drives more broadband investment.”

He noted in many cases, companies (including Cisco) have now rid themselves of office space in order to make working from home permanent, so investment in broadband to provide more bandwidth, lower latency and better SLAs will be a necessity. However, he wasn’t willing to speculate at how long those upgrades will take.

Wi-Fi 6

Barton is excited about Wi-Fi 6, which opens up more and wider channels and lets users push through more data with less interference.

“Because all the hype of 5G, people are saying, ‘well, why should I buy Wi-Fi 6 and upgrade these big networks when I could just do 5G?’ And when they looked into it and realized, ‘no, there’s a place for both technologies’. One is on unlicensed spectrum, that they don’t have to pay for, which gives maximum flexibility and it’s internally controlled within the enterprise.

“5G is something else… They coexist. These are two different technologies,” he continued. “One area of a lot of growth for us right now is also the industrial. Some of our biggest industrial accounts, whether it’s in manufacturing, in Ontario, oil and gas in Alberta, public utilities, they’re doing a lot of Wi-Fi deployment and starting to put even critical type of assets onto Wi-Fi. It’s becoming quite a ubiquitous connection standard.”

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