4G networks offer new wireless WAN opportunities to enterprises

While mobile operators are touting their 4G networks as the next big thing for enterprise wireless WAN, these claims need to be tempered with the reality of the current state of cellular connections. Although a number of opportunities to mobilize the workforce exist, tiered pricing, small network footprints and a lot of marketing double talk are obstacles WAN managers need to navigate to understand the latest generation of wireless technologies.

The fourth generation of cellular wireless services, known as 4G, promises not only higher speeds and lower latency, but a move to an end-to-end IP wireless network. As a result, 4G networks offer enterprise wide area network (WAN) managers more than just a faster wireless WAN.

The 4G technologies, LTE and WiMax, are data-only networks by default, forgoing the voice channels utilized by previous generations of cellular technologies. Instead, voice and data travel over the same IP network. This IP architecture is the most significant difference between 3G and 4G networks, said Mike Jude, program manager for consumer communication services at Stratecast/Frost & Sullivan.

 “When everything is IP, devices become disassociated from the network," he said. “The enterprise network edge becomes blurred.”

This disassociation from the mobile carrier's network and the convergence that IP offers should allow enterprises to apply to 4G network devices the same level of management and monitoring that they apply to devices on their local and wide area networks.

An end-to-end IP wireless network will simplify the architectural challenges of some enterprise mobility services, such as fixed mobile convergence (FMC). FMC technology enables mobile cellular devices to integrate with an enterprise’s unified communications infrastructure and manages the connection to that infrastructure as users migrate between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. The handoff of voice calls between cellular and Wi-Fi has always been complex because cellular networks have used a separate voice channel. Since 4G devices operate on all-IP networks, they make and receive calls via voice over IP (VoIP), regardless of whether they are connecting via a Wi-Fi network or a cellular 4G network.

“Beyond just a faster experience on existing mobile applications, video and collaboration solutions would be a new avenue that enterprises could take advantage of with 4G,” said Peter Jarich, service director for service provider infrastructure at Current Analysis.

Obstacles to 4G network services in the wireless WAN

When enterprises evaluate 4G networks for the wireless WAN, they should beware the hype surrounding the technology. “4G has become a marketing buzzword,” Jude said. “Some of the wireless carriers are promoting their upgraded 3G network as 4G, and there is even debate on whether the new networks are technically 4G.”

T-Mobile USA has been promoting its HSPA+ network as 4G even though the underlying technology is technically 3G. AT&T is also launching HSPA+ 4G services this year ahead of its LTE launch. HSPA+ networks can deliver speeds that are comparable to 4G technologies and mobile operators have the option of running end-to-end IP on HSPA+, but not all carriers operate the technology in that way. Enterprises looking to adopt all-IP mobile services should do their research.

Early 4G networks will also lack ubiquitous coverage as mobile operators slowly build out their network footprints. Also, the roaming options on 4G networks are murky right now. While the top two wireless operators, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, will both offer LTE-based 4G services, there is no guarantee that the two providers will support each other’s devices.

“AT&T and Verizon do not exactly have a history of working together, so it remains to be seen if the two can work out roaming agreements,” Jarich said.

Without these agreements, customer devices will be limited to their provider’s network. With both wireless carriers in the early deployment stages of their LTE rollouts, the result could be significantly small geographic footprints for 4G networks in the short term.

WAN managers will also face a complicated pricing system for 4G data rates within a wireless WAN. Mobile operators have been weaning customers off of the unlimited data packages that were available with 3G services. Service providers will probably introduce usage-based or tiered pricing models with their 4G networks.

“It is hard to imagine a remote branch location using 4G as the primary wireless WAN link being a cost effective option for enterprises without an unlimited data plan pricing available from the operators,” Jarich noted.

However, operators are still in the early stages of rolling out their 4G networks, so WAN managers have an opportunity to influence the shape of new enterprise wireless WAN pricing models. “Enterprises have the opportunity to tell the carriers what they want out of 4G, rather than just taking what the carriers give them,” Jude said.

A strategic approach to 4G networks for wireless WAN

Enterprises need to cut through the hype of 4G networks when developing a strategy for the technology. Rather than focus on the new technology itself, WAN managers should identify business processes that could especially benefit from 4G-based mobility. Then they can deploy small pilot projects that identify the potential return on investment that these mobilized business processes can deliver. Enterprises should also use the transition to 4G networks as a time to reassess their preferred wireless operator. Moving to new networks inevitably means migrating to new mobile devices. The transition to 4G will require new handsets and wireless dongles, even if the enterprise stays with an incumbent service provider. Therefore, an organization should take the opportunity to reevaluate all of its wireless services and the wireless operators that provide them.

This was last published in February 2011

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