It’s Time For the WAN to Go Wireless

Zeus Kerravala
Principal Analyst, ZK Research
Silver Peak
Going Wireless - Outside

The theme of shifting the business WAN away from high cost MPLS connections to lower-cost high-speed broadband connections is becoming more widely accepted today. Historically, IT leaders were nervous about doing this, as the “guarantees” of MPLS provided a level of comfort versus the unpredictable nature of broadband. However, broadband services and network features such as multi-path technology have made using broadband a legitimate option for companies.

When it comes to broadband, though, there are many options available to businesses. The majority of IT leaders and network managers I’ve interviewed tend to only consider wire line broadband services like cable, DSL, or Metro Ethernet. But there is another option that businesses should consider, and that’s deploying a wireless broadband WAN using 4G / LTE cellular services.

The concept of the wireless WAN certainly isn’t new. Wireless operators have been trying to get businesses to consider cellular connectivity for branch offices now for well over five years, but the old 3G services just didn’t cut it. I found an old an old PC Magazine article from June of 2011 that showed what 3G speeds were at the time:

I’ve used the nationwide chart here, although the article looked at speeds by region of the country. In 2011 4G services were in their infancy; the point of the PC Magazine story was to show how much faster 4G was compared to 3G, but in practicality, LTE was available in so few markets, 3G was the only viable option for most companies.

You can see from the above chart that average download speeds ranged from a paltry 0.70 MB for Verizon to 3.7 MB for T-Mobile. All the upload speeds were horrific as well, with only T-Mobile being barely above 1 MB. The issue T-Mobile had in 2011 — and as a former subscriber, I can attest to this — is that coverage was terrible. So if you happened to be in the T-Mobile footprint, you had a reasonable experience. But it certainly didn’t offer the coverage of Verizon Wireless or AT&T.

Fast forward to 2015 and 4G services are available almost everywhere. Even in my small, rural town of Westminster MA, where I can’t even get Verizon FiOS, I get reasonable 4G coverage.

Most of the 4G operators tout 4G speeds of 10+ MB as can be seen by this Verizon Wireless ad. I check speeds all the time and I rarely experience speeds even close to 10 MB, but I regularly get speeds in the 5-6 MB connection range and sometimes hit 8 MB.

At those speeds, wireless becomes a viable option for businesses. Obviously, no one would run a 50 person branch location with high bandwidth, real-time WAN needs for applications like Telepresence. However, for smaller branches with more modest WAN needs, like insurance offices, small bank branches. and retail stores, wireless services may be perfect.

For larger organizations. or ones that are just skeptical to running a wireless WAN, there are two scenarios to consider. The first is as a backup or alternative connection. One option for multi-path is to consider multiple wire line services. However, if the primary connection fails due to cables being cut from a backhoe or construction, its possible to lose all wire line services. Wireless can protect against that.

The other scenario is when opening a new location. Ever been in the situation where the opening of a new location is being held up because the local telco is making you wait 90 days before installing the local loop? I have, and it’s incredibly frustrating. Instead, drop a 4G module into your Cisco router and voila, instant WAN connectivity. Then, once the wired service is up and running, use the 4G WAN for non-mission-critical traffic and keep all the high-value traffic on the wired service.

Looking into the future, wireless speeds are set to jump by an order of magnitude. Wireless operators are building out higher-speed networks that can be thought of as enhanced 4G / LTE services. Some examples of these are Sprint Spark and Verizon Wireless XLTE. In both cases, the wireless operators are claiming speeds of 40+ MB. This would obviously be in perfect conditions, but even if they do 15-20 MB, that should be sufficient for the needs of most businesses. It’s obviously going to take years before the build out of Spark and XLTE are truly nationwide, but if you happen to have an office in the footprint of these networks, it’s certainly work checking out.

I understand the concept of “wireless” and “WAN” has somewhat been an oxymoron. However, I do believe the speed and reliability of 4G services today coupled by the enhanced networks makes it an option that most businesses should check out.

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