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Replacing WAN links with 3G/4G wireless: When does it make sense?

Enterprises are interested in reducing complexity and costs by replacing some of their wired wide-area network (WAN) links with 3G and 4G wireless connections. Wireless is a good option as a backup connection, and in some scenarios it can work as a primary connection.

With 3G wireless networks expanding globally and 4G networks entering the market, some enterprises are looking at these services as an alternative to wired wide-area network (WAN) links.

Enterprises are considering 3G and 4G for a variety of reasons, according to John Stehman, associate senior analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

"One is the quest for mobility," Stehman said. "The sales force is becoming mobile, corporate workers are becoming mobile. And it really does make people more productive when they are untethered."

Working 3G/4G solutions into a wired WAN environment
  • Branch offices, where DSL circuits may be hard to support and expensive to maintain.
  • Hybrid environments, where enterprises adopt a mix of wireless and wired connections to build out their WANs.
  • Temporary connectivity for primary business sites, or at remote branches in areas that lack a sufficient wireline infrastructure.
  • Stationary and remote backup for wired WAN links.
  • Digital signage, or telemetry applications to avoid the expense of dedicated wired connections.
As employees become more mobile and use wireless technologies on the road, it makes sense to apply the benefits of this flexible connectivity to the office as well.

"Most enterprises are already using wireless, [even if] it is just for voice, and it would make sense if you could settle on one technology and eliminate other technologies that are used in the WAN," Stehman said. "From a management perspective, a cost perspective and a complexity perspective, it would make good business sense if you could do that."

Stehman pointed to small branch offices as candidates for wireless WAN connectivity. He said many enterprises run DSL circuits to these locations, and they are typically hard to support and expensive to maintain. Rarely does a company have the IT staff on site to support these connections.

"In a wireless world, if the speed and reliability were there, it would make things a lot easier for them," he said. "Unfortunately, we're not there yet."

Despite the interest he hears from some clients, Stehman said wireless carriers don't yet offer the service level guarantees that enterprises can get from their wireline providers. And wireless providers aren't motivated to sell enterprise-class WAN connectivity.

"A lot of these wireless providers [offer] wired WAN connections, too," he said. "There is no reason for them to want to lose that lucrative business. They know they can sell all their wireless spectrum to consumers and that they can augment any wired WAN by selling more circuits or higher capacity. It's just not in their best interest for wired services to disappear."

Instead, Stehman envisions a hybrid environment, where enterprises adopt a mix of wireless and wired connections to build out their WANs.

Two years ago, Cisco Systems added 3G connectivity to its line of Integrated Services Routers (ISR). At the time, Cisco said 3G connectivity in these popular branch office routers could provide enterprises with automatic failover to 3G services for business continuity. The company also claimed that the 3G option could provide connectivity for temporary business sites, such as kiosks at trade shows, or primary connectivity at remote branches in areas that lack sufficient wireline infrastructure.

Most enterprises aren't interested in using 3G or 4G services as a primary WAN connection. Instead, they view it as a good option for backing up primary wired WAN links.

"What we tend to see is the only time 3G connections typically replace existing wired connections is as a backup," said Abner Germanow, research director at IDC. "Classically, [an enterprise] might have a T1 connection with a modem or ISDN backup. Now, you can get a 3G connection that might perform better than that [backup] at a lower cost."

More on wireless WAN technology

Wireless WAN technologies -- an overview for network pros

T1 or wireless? T1 is far more reliable

An introduction to WiMax

Enterprises do, however, adopt wireless connections as primary WAN links in some limited applications, Germanow noted.

"You see that in digital signage, or telemetry applications that track how much oil is flowing through a pipeline," he said. "You see it in wireless kiosks, places where it can be pretty expensive to get a wired connection or take a really long time to get a connection there. You can just throw a 3G router in there."

The China International Trust & Investment Corp. (CITIC) is using 3G wireless data connections as primary WAN links for hundreds of its ATM machines in China, according to Top Global Inc., the bank's supplier of 3G routers. CITIC was trying to rapidly expand its number of ATM machines in China, but it was facing a lead time of three to four weeks for the installation of a wired network connection to each machine.

"In the future, 3G use will increase the more you want to network things that move around and are far away from other things," Germanow said. "We've certainly seen a tremendous growth in 3G connections that don't go to handhelds. It's still a very small market, but it's growing pretty quickly and it's not showing signs of slowing down."

Germanow said he doesn't expect that a company with an office in a highly wired city like Boston or New York will turn to 3G or 4G wireless as a primary WAN connection. But if a company opens a factory in a remote South American location with spotty wired networks, then wireless will be an attractive alternative.

"Generally, people will take whatever connections are available to them," Germanow said. "The only thing with 3G connections is that there is a fair amount of latency. They're not good for all applications, but people will take what they can get."

"We're looking at having hybrid environments for some time," Stehman said. "Enterprises that are smart are going to figure out where they can get the most bang for their buck – where they can use these wireless services and where they can get rid of DSL connections. This is going to be an ongoing trend."

Despite the rising interest, wireless carriers still have a long way to go before 3G and 4G networks are built out broadly enough to serve all enterprises.

"It is a very compelling technology that I would love to leverage, but the locations where we would want to use it simply don't have enough of a modern wireless infrastructure available," said Don Lester, senior engineer with Wenatchee Valley Medical Center, a chain of medical centers and clinics in rural Washington. "Our head-end campus in Wenatchee has access to 3G, but none of our rural clinics where we would want connectivity enjoy the same luxury."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor