5G and fixed wireless: Where does it fit in your SD-WAN connectivity strategy?

Posted on May 26, 2020

Fixed wireless connectivity (or cellular service) allows enterprises to incorporate DSL, 4G, and now 5G into their SD-WAN hybrid access strategy. But many are confused when it comes to knowing exactly when and where to deploy this network connectivity type. Where should 5G service fit into your site connectivity plan? According to a 2020 survey from Nemertes Research, more than 42% of organizations deploying or planning to deploy 5G in the next 18 months aim to use it for connectivity at some sites. And with employees working from home, wireless is serving as a primary network for many virtual workforces. What are the implications? Here’s how Masergy advises its clients.

Fixed wireless: Most use it for backup or temporary use (until now)

Just like broadband, fixed wireless is a public internet access option. While it’s less reliable than private access and dedicated internet access, it has one unique advantage. A wired connection can be physically cut, but wireless connectivity is naturally immune to that threat.

Fixed wireless connections can be beamed across relatively long distances, but doing so often increases lag time which creates a slow experience for the user. With these drawbacks, many enterprises prefer to use wireless connectivity only as backup circuits or as an interim solution–providing a temporary link until the main circuit is delivered to the site. Using 4G or 5G as permanent primary network connectivity can be done as we’re learning today, but the connections can be unpredictable when compared to more reliable access methodologies.

This explains why many IT leaders are working to turn their temporary COVID-19 connectivity solutions into more sustainable strategies for the long haul. Working from home is here to stay. Whether you’re using it as a startup network, a failover strategy, or as primary connectivity during the pandemic, the future of the wireless WAN will largely be determined by how carriers charge for it. More on that below.

Pros and cons of fixed wireless

Pros

  • Cost benefits: 4G bandwidth costs are one of the key reasons fixed wireless is relegated for backup.
  • Disaster resistant: Enterprises never have to worry about losing access to a site when someone accidentally (or deliberately) cuts their expensive fiber line. Wireless saves the day!
  • Speed: 4G Connections are relatively fast compared to low-end wireline broadband—in some regions, 4G is faster than DSL. 5G will bring even faster speeds!

Cons

  • Easily drained: The biggest problem with 4G today is that it can be maxed out quickly. The amount of data sent over a fixed wireless connection on a normal business day at even a small branch office would exceed the monthly bandwidth allotment for a typical 4G connection. Beware of overage fees!
  • Prone to fees: Keep in mind that 4G fixed wireless is billed monthly; meaning these connections are subject to data caps and overage fees much like the data plans on consumer cell phones. Principal Analyst at Nemertes Research, John Burke, describes the current wireless pricing structure in his recent blog on 5G WAN economics as “not conducive to wider use of wireless WAN because it makes budgeting too difficult and performance management challenging.”
  • Security concerns: As a public internet access methodology, fixed wireless requires security threat monitoring and management, which can be an added burden and expense for IT budgets when not paired with managed security services.
  • Lag time across long distances: As a wireless technology, this service has limitations when used in long-distance situations. Physical barriers create lag time.

5G bandwidth could be a game changer, but…

There’s a lot of excitement around 5G, which promises increased speeds without data caps. Connectivity is already available for large cities in the United States and Asia. This has many ready to assign 5G’s additional bandwidth to their IoT and big-data strategies where more computing power is required. But, much remains to be seen.

Deployment is still limited, and the price of the service has many wondering whether they will be able to justify an investment–particularly early in the game when the price of service is higher. Because 5G still needs considerable infrastructure investments in order to be rolled out to the entire U.S. and worldwide, many are taking a wait-and-see approach and bracing for the cost.

Will new pricing models help with cost justification?

While the service needs more time to mature, 5G may bring with it new fixed monthly pricing models based on symmetrical bandwidth speeds. This is very different from the consumption-based models with data limits and overage fees. Fixed pricing could open the door to new and novel use cases for fixed wireless that many IT leaders likely never considered before. While IoT seems to be the default use case for 5G, there will be many others to come. Whether you’re planning on being an early adopter or not, 5G is worthy of close attention.

Fixed wireless: Quick buyer’s guide

Fixed wireless is typically not offered as a standalone service, meaning clients often have wireline services to their office location as the primary connection (e.g. SD-WAN, direct internet access, or broadband internet circuits) then purchase fixed wireless service to use if the primary wireline goes down. Given the limitations of 4G and the still-maturing status of 5G, IT leaders should carefully consider these aspects:

  • Dig deep into performance visibility and management tools: Like any public internet access methodology, you’ll want to carefully monitor and manage the performance of your fixed wireless connections. Will you have real-time performance visibility? Will you have ways to adjust bandwidth on the fly and manage it just like all your other WAN connections? Can you set thresholds and alerts for your 4G fixed wireless connection, allowing you to receive notifications when you’re reaching your data limit and when you’re at risk of overage fees?
    Buyer tip: SD-WAN analytics and self-service controls are key functionalities that help remove the inherent risks associated with fixed wireless. Managed services are also critical in helping you keep tabs on any availability challenges and data overage fees.
  • Understand service elasticity: The beauty of fixed wireless is flexibility and being able to “ride the waves of technology advancement.” You’ll want your service to easily transition from 4G to 5G and even WiFi6 or 6G (in the distant future). How much elasticity will your service allow? If you have locations in developing nations (where older 2G and 3G wireless service is used) will you be able to access those older models too and then upgrade as advanced services become available?
    Buyer tip: Providers that accommodate global enterprises will offer fixed wireless service that works on all wireless standards to their maximum speeds. They will make sure you can receive 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G wireless signals and upgrade as needed.
  • Know your change process: If you select a 4G or 5G plan as backup and it proves to be too unreliable, too costly, or you just need to make a change, what are your exit and change options? Similarly, if 5G proves to be the best option and you’re ready to sign up, how difficult will it be to switch connectivity types? What does that change process look like? How long will it take? Does it come with exorbitant change fees?
    Buyer tip: A single global network built entirely on software-defined architecture standards will facilitate connectivity changes much faster and easier than legacy “patchworked networks.” Understand the composition and purity of the IT infrastructure behind your provider’s network to understand if it’s uniformly built using software-defined principles, as networks standardized around modern technologies deliver superior service flexibility and business continuity.
  • Don’t forget about security: Hybrid networking strategies that introduce public Internet access mean that new security monitoring must be added. Security and network teams will need to work together to identify how security will be handled.
    Buyer tip: Even if you choose to ingest additional security alerts using your existing internal IT team, an SD-WAN and networking partner that also offers 24/7 threat detection and response services can be helpful. Security is a big job that’s only getting bigger, and many IT leaders enjoy knowing they have the option to lean on their provider for help as needed.

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Terry Traina

Terry Traina is the chief technology officer and has been with Masergy since 2004. Terry leads various teams including research and development, platform architecture, software engineering, and product development. Terry has over 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry specializing in building and managing everything from enterprise software-defined networks to routing and switching platforms. Prior to joining Masergy, Terry has held various technical positions at Chiaro Networks, Allied Riser Communications, and EDS. Terry holds a bachelor’s of science in electrical engineering from University of Southwestern Louisiana.

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