As 5G starts its slow roll into cities across the U.S. and around the world in 2019, there is anticipation building in the enterprise community regarding its impact on digital transformation journeys. 4G LTE brought new ways for us to work, relax and connect along with business models and company structures that could not have functioned in a 3G world; think Uber and Facebook. While all of the hype is focused on 5G today, 4G LTE has been steadily evolving—reaching farther and connecting faster than ever before. In fact, wireless carriers are aggressively upgrading their LTE infrastructure to deliver Gigabit-Class LTE as part of their own pathway to 5G.
What most people don’t appreciate is that Gigabit-Class LTE leverages many of the same technologies that will form the foundation of 5G. Technologies such as 256 QAM that allows carriers to cram more bits into the same spectrum, 4×4 MIMO to enable more radio bandwidth between user equipment and towers, and Carrier Aggregation (CA) which is a form of inverse multiplexing of spectrum channels to deliver wider bandwidth and faster speeds. While most major carriers have been somewhat quiet about the roll-out of Gigabit-Class LTE, AT&T has boldly—and controversially—called their upgraded Gigabit-Class LTE network 5G Evolution or 5GE.
For organizations looking to extend the reach, reliability, and speed of their enterprise branch networks without all of the complexity and inflexibility of wired connections, Gigabit-Class LTE can today provide up to 80 percent of the value of 5G.
Cutting the Cord is Now a Reality
The arrival of Gigabit-Class LTE, along with the emergence of “no overage” data plans, represents the missing link for many organizations that have been considering swapping out wired access links for cellular at their branch locations. For years, we have seen LTE as the go-to connection for failover and Day-1 connectivity. Now, LTE is a viable option for the primary WAN connectivity as well – allowing organizations to finally cut the cord. For many enterprises that are stitching together dozens—and even hundreds—of cable and DSL providers to build a nationwide branch network, LTE can replace it all with just a cellular provider or two, and deliver a significant improvement in WAN uptime to boot.
Wireless edge routers that provide a ‘Pathway to 5G’ will enable enterprises to take advantage of 5G when and where it arrives at branch locations without disruptive upgrades, all while working seamlessly with existing LTE sites. The unique capabilities of 5G, including lower latency and network virtualization (aka slicing), will enable new applications like virtual, augmented or mixed reality, immersive customer experiences, and edge processing and analysis of crime video footage in real-time.
Taking The Network On The Road—In the Fast Lane
For organizations that depend on field forces and mobile networks—like first responders, transportation departments, utility crews, insurance disaster teams, and many others—secure in-vehicle networks with reliable LTE connectivity is essential. In many environments, vehicles have become remote offices and field-based communications hubs, allowing users to access mission-critical applications and the Internet from anywhere, and keeping data flowing to the cloud from a variety of IoT devices, including vehicle telemetry, sensors, equipment, and surveillance cameras. To ensure non-stop networking wherever teams roam, fleet-centric organizations are deploying mobile router solutions with support for multiple, concurrent cellular providers and intelligent software that manages traffic across them.
Mobile networks don’t have to be stuck in slow lane either. The LTE networks we use every day are getting faster all the time. In fact, I just did a SpeedTest on my mobile phone here in Boise and received 62Mbps download and 11Mbps upload over Verizon, with only 27 milliseconds of latency. With the proliferation of Gigabit-Class LTE services, wireless speeds can easily and consistently top 100Mbps download. In fact, AT&T’s 5G Evolution network (read: Gigabit LTE) is advertised at the peak of 400Mbps.
Wireless Always Wins, Eventually
Throughout the modern history of connectivity, wireless always wins. Eventually. 900Mhz cordless phones have essentially killed off corded phones—that’s if your home phone has not already been replaced by your mobile phone. Wireless speakers and Bluetooth headsets are rapidly displacing clunky wired options as well, while wireless LANs usurped wired Ethernet in the office and public spaces over a decade ago.
Whenever the performance and economics of wireless converge with its wired rival, wireless always wins. This point of convergence is about to happen in the WAN space. Thanks to the catalytic effects of 5G technology and pricing innovations, the Gigabit-Class LTE network upgrade continues to roll out across the country and across cellular providers. From an economic perspective, the emergence of tiered “no overage” LTE data plans are eliminating overage anxiety that has held back broader LTE adoption. Today, it’s possible to get an LTE connection in many places outside of “football cities” that is faster than the wired options available. The closer we get to the broad 5G roll-out, the faster wireless wins in the WAN.
There is no doubt that 5G will be the biggest communications transformation since the Internet, with some even saying as big as electricity. Well, that might be overdramatizing things a bit. However, there is no denying that the wireless WAN wave is upon us. Gigabit-Class LTE is not only based on the same foundational technology as 5G; it also delivers 80% of the value that most enterprises want today – a faster and still pervasive wireless connection. And, if your wireless edge solution of choice has a built-in pathway to 5G, why would you wait to experience the agility, reliability, and reachability of wireless in your WAN?