5G wireless WAN will have benefits beyond 4G WWAN

With all the discussion about the positive impacts that 5G can have on Internet access for individuals and businesses, it is vital that network engineers keep in mind that 5G is not the only cellular option for enterprise WANs; 4G already offers many of those benefits.

Nemertes investigated with organizations that have made significant commitments to 4G-based wireless technology in their WANs and identified four common use cases across organizations. Each of those uses will be enhanced in a number of ways with the upcoming broad availability of 5G. We’ll see.

Get new sites online fast

When it may still take three months or more to get a new MPLS connection and weeks to activate an Internet link, Wireless WAN (WWAN) is a great way to get a branch office productive as quickly as possible. One professional services organization noted that as soon as people had chairs and desks, IT could provide them with a connection to the enterprise WAN through a site-to-site IPsec tunnel over 4G.

Instant start connectivity can also instantly turn on resumption access for relocated employees. As soon as it is powered up in the new office space, the WWAN router can bring a workgroup relocated from one office building to another back online.

Wireless backup

This is perhaps the best known use case and the most widely adopted strategy for using a WWAN. Organizations in ex-urban locations with few connectivity options have adopted WWAN as a backup for wired connectivity. When the wired link goes down, the wireless goes into service.

Again, tunneling a connection to the WAN is the usual model. However, direct Internet connectivity is gaining popularity as cloud adoption grows; More than half of the average company’s workloads run in one cloud or another rather than in an enterprise data center. A state agency Nemertes interviewed started with this model, but is contemplating a shift to WWAN as its primary connectivity, given that speeds are sometimes better and reliability also in the locations they serve.

Burst capacity

As with emergency bandwidth, also with additional capacity. In this scenario, the cellular service is established but is basically not used except when necessary. In this case, need means sustained traffic spikes that cause performance degradation on the primary connection or simply exceed its capacity. A retailer Nemertes interviewed uses WWAN for both failover and burst, regularly employing it as burst capacity during holiday seasons when traffic peaks.

Primary connection

Wireless technology can also be used as the sole technology for WAN connectivity, completely replacing conventional wired links. Organizations that were successful with this model typically replaced older copper plants (DSL, T1, fractional T1, matched T1 lines) and often in areas outside of the urban centers and first ring suburbs where cable connectivity is more scarce or more expensive.

Pros and cons

For companies looking to WWAN in one or more of these four use cases, the benefits were clear and consistent:

  • Nearly ubiquitous geographic availability of 4G LTE, often from multiple providers
  • Instant access
  • Bandwidths that exceed older, lower-end wired connectivity
  • Similar or better reliability for serviced locations

The cons were also consistent:

  • Limited availability of a cable pricing model (a fixed monthly fee for a set speed, regardless of how many bits are transmitted)
  • Higher cost compared to wired services being replaced (in most cases the price per megabit per second decreased, but the absolute cost increased)
  • Problems in some places with antenna placement due to materials of construction and location of wiring closets
  • Avoid usage limits and speed throttling

Price per drink was one of the most commonly cited drawbacks of WWAN among the organizations Nemertes interviewed.

5G Brings Networking and Cable Pricing to WWAN

As it becomes more widely available, 5G will bring welcome enhancements to the world of WWAN. Higher speeds and greater reliability are two, but a third important is network outage, which allows operators to control how much capacity a given client can consume on a shared base station. With segmentation in place, operators will be able to make capacity promises to enterprise customers and have the means to enforce them.

At a minimum, segmentation can be used to implement equitable usage, preventing demand from one customer from starving others using the same access point. You can also divide the capacity for business wireless landline customers from the capacity that serves the general public.

In any of the four use cases described above, higher speeds, better reliability, and significant capacity guarantees will be welcome improvements over the state of the art. Just as important, network splitting will be key for operators to make cable-like pricing widely available by enabling the level of traffic engineering they need to do so.

With prices similar to wired and 4G tiers of geographic coverage, 5G WWAN will become a standard option for most organizations to consider alongside wired connectivity in any of the above use cases.

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