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Why 5G will redefine WWAN and SD-WAN

The nexus of 5G, WWAN and SD-WAN promises to usher in an array of custom tools and services for enterprises.

Developments in the field of wireless wide area networking are giving enterprises new reasons to consider the technology. Looking ahead, WWAN -- specifically, 5G in WWAN -- promises to be a game-changing option for software-defined WAN, or SD-WAN.

Organizations deploy WWANs to improve site failover behavior, taking advantage of the ubiquity of 4G LTE. When wired links fail, LTE can pick up the load for a great many sites, at minimal upfront investment.

Many companies that start with WWANs for disaster recovery build enough trust to employ them in other use cases. Startup connectivity is a good example, where a WWAN is used as a site's initial link until wired links get provisioned. Some go further and adopt WWAN as primary connectivity.

In SD-WAN, where policy can control when and how the link is used, wireless can provide always available burst capacity. In the event wired links fail, it can serve as a failover path as well. It can do this without being in use all the time or being used for everything -- propositions that are prohibitively expensive.

WWAN changes branch strategies

WWAN is exciting for many reasons but mainly because it shifts the WAN from acting as a brake on enterprise branch strategies to one in which it becomes an accelerator. Wired links take weeks or months to be provisioned and require commitments of at least a year. With wireless, branches are instant-on -- WAN links are up and running in minutes rather than weeks -- and instant-off without penalty at shutdown. New sites are up and working more quickly, thus increasing top-line revenue. Bottom-line profits also grow, as sites can be activated without blowing up the networking budget.

WWAN is exciting for many reasons but mainly because it shifts the WAN from acting as a brake on enterprise branch strategy to one in which it becomes an accelerator.

Yet, for all its potential, WWAN is currently hampered by 4G infrastructures and architectures and the cost structures that go with them. Providers can't control 4G bandwidth in a way that makes service-level agreements and rate commitments practical. Nor can providers offer "wired-like" billing plans -- in which companies pay for capacity and not consumption -- for fear of vastly overselling capacity.

WWAN adoption is also hamstrung by cost, which threatens to outweigh its many benefits. It is not just about how much, but also how structured. With consumption-based pricing, IT can't predict what the service will cost from one month to the next. Caps and rate limits apply as well, which make it harder to rely on performance levels.

By negotiating with their LTE service providers, larger organizations can often get favorable cost structures for WWAN. It helps that, at this point, all the carriers have cut wired-like pricing deals with at least some of their customers. Companies just have to convince their account teams to find and follow the examples. Organizations of all sizes can use techniques such as pooling data costs across mobile users and sites to make WWAN costs more manageable and to get around barriers like rate limits or consumption caps.

5G transforming the WWAN landscape

The advent of 5G in WWAN will change this landscape, as its architecture and infrastructure are purposely designed to let providers allocate bandwidth and meet specific service-level commitments. Once network slicing functionality becomes commonplace, 5G providers can easily deliver bandwidth with specific performance characteristics. They will also be able to put limits around consumption so no one can overconsume available capacity at the expense of those commitments. Additionally, providers can offer fixed-rate pricing, which will make WWAN far more attractive to enterprise CFOs.

What's more, 5G is not the only game in town. Rapidly expanding low Earth orbit (LEO) and medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellite services will offer market alternatives to 5G WWAN, with products specifically targeted to those with sites in remote locations. By 2024, both options should be readily available in the U.S.

The rise of 5G over the next two years, as well as the emergence of LEO and MEO satellite services at competitive rates, will drive broad WWAN adoption and make WWAN a standard piece of most WAN architectures.

This was last published in March 2021

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