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Wireless wide area networks: A primer on WWAN technology and uses

A wireless wide area network (WWAN) has several possibilities for uses and comes with both advantages and disadvantages. Learn about the WWAN in this primer.

This wireless wide area network (WWAN) primer gives WAN managers and engineers a brief overview of the technology -- including what a WWAN is, why you need to know about it and what you need to know about it.

What is a WWAN?

A wireless wide area network provides coverage to a large geographical area by connecting separate areas of coverage wirelessly. WWANs are also frequently referred to as 3G or 4G networks because wireless WANs commonly use 3G and 4G mobile network connection types. WWANs are usually publicly shared data networks owned by service providers with low data rates based on usage. Wireless local area networks (WLANs), on the other hand, are typically privately-owned networks that cover a smaller area such as a warehouse, hospital or educational institution with data rates based on usage. Currently, WWANs are primarily used for smartphones and other handheld devices offered by cellular service providers.

Why do enterprise WAN managers and engineers need to know about the WWAN?

There are several possible applications of WWANs. One of its uses is for a backup connection in the event of a WAN outage. Using a WWAN for this purpose could save money since it acts as an on-demand backup, which bills by usage -- rather than as an always-on connection, which bills an invariable fee. A WWAN could also be a more reliable alternative to ISDN or DSL circuits. WWANs can also act as a stopgap measure when setting up a new remote branch or temporary location while the primary access is being installed, removing wait time for those sites. WWANs could even be used as the primary access at remote sites if a wired connection would be too costly.

Although 3G services would not be the ideal primary network access due to their limited bandwidth, the emergence of 4G services offers new possibilities for wide area network access. WWAN services offer a few advantages, including being less costly than wired infrastructures and having the ability to deploy quickly.

What do WAN managers and engineers need to know about wireless WANs?

Although WWAN services have potential for primary network access, many carriers are not offering the level of service necessary for enterprises; for example, many don’t offer service-level agreements (SLAs). Although service providers have not historically offered 3G and 4G network performance guarantees, this problem is starting to be addressed. Sprint Nextel Corp. is currently offering an SLA and a pre-sales radio frequency (RF) assessment to optimize performance for the wireless WAN. However, pricing may prove problematic due to the ending of unlimited data, which may make it too costly to use the WWAN as the primary access. Since this technology is still evolving, WAN managers should plan ahead if they wish to switch to wireless WANs in the future.

Service providers for WWAN technologies include AT&T, Clearwire, Sprint and Verizon and use technologies such as LTE, WiMAX, UMTS, CDMA2000, GSM, CDPD and Mobitex to transfer data.

This was last published in October 2011

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