Mobile WAN routers: Comparison and considerations for your enterprise

If you have road warriors in your enterprise wide area network (WAN) workforce, you're probably worrying about exorbitant mobile broadband fees. Mobile WAN routers are a cost-effective alternative. Read this tip to learn when to use them in your enterprise.

Conventional WAN routers use terrestrial links (e.g., DSL, T1/T3) to connect entire branch offices to the Internet, spreading costs across dozens or hundreds of users. But workers who leave the office carry 3G/4G phones, tablets and notebooks -- individual WAN hosts that incur higher per-user mobile broadband fees.

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As workforces grow increasingly mobile, the former approach can no longer satisfy all business needs, while the latter is becoming prohibitively expensive. Businesses looking for cost-effective alternatives should consider mobile WAN routers: portable hotspots that can deliver 3G/4G Internet access to on-the-go workgroups.

Why you should consider mobile WAN routers
Rural branch offices have long used fixed WAN routers with satellite uplinks. Even offices that relied primarily on terrestrial uplinks could often fail over to wireless backup. But, until recently, those wireless WAN routers were used only to fill niche needs -- largely because wireless networks themselves were slow, spotty and expensive.

Today, 3G/4G WANs have finally turned the corner, overcoming coverage, cost and bandwidth barriers to become more than an alternative of last resort. As a result, mobile WAN routers have grown more popular -- not only where terrestrial links are impractical but wherever opportunities exist to spread mobile broadband fees across multiple users.

Mobile WAN router comparison: Cost and functionality
Many new mobile WAN routers have emerged to capitalize on this happy intersection between wireless network maturity and workforce mobility. To appreciate what mobile WAN routers can do and how much they cost, consider these recently released products:

  • Novatel Wireless MiFi -- This 2 ounce credit-card-sized intelligent mobile hotspot lets five 802.11b/g users share 3G (EV-DO or HSPA) Internet access for up to four hours on a single charge. For example, Verizon Wireless sells the MiFi 2200 ($199) with EV-DO Rev. A service for $59.99 per month or $15 per day.
  • Cradlepoint CLEAR Spot -- This 3 in. by 5 in. mobile router ($139) can be paired with your choice of 3G or 4G USB modems, delivering shared Internet access to eight 802.11b/g users. For example, a CLEAR WiMAX USB modem that can be inserted into the CLEAR Spot runs $10 per day or $30 per month.
  • Sierra Wireless Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot -- This 3.14-in.-square mobile router ($150) connects five 802.11b/g users to WiMAX ($60 per month) and provides 16 GB of shared storage. According to Sprint, the Overdrive on 4G offers peak download speeds of 10+ Mbps (average 3-6 Mbps), with fall-back to 3G where required.
  • ZyXEL MWR222 -- This 4 in. by 3 in. ruggedized 802.11n pocket router ($299) supports fixed DSL/cable or mobile 3G/4G Internet access with automatic failover for up to two hours. 3G/4G requires your choice of USB adapter (purchased separately).
These products and prices differ but share several important characteristics:
  • Mobility -- all are small, designed for on-the-go use, without a wired link or AC outlet.
  • Wireless -- all exploit Wi-Fi to easily support a wide variety of devices.
  • Routing -- all use NAT to multiplex several devices onto a shared 3G/4G WAN connection.

When your enterprise should use mobile WAN routers
Because of 3G/4G usage caps, mobile WAN routers are not a replacement for fixed WAN routers where inexpensive, unlimited wired Internet is available. Rather, consider mobile WAN routers wherever mobile or temporary wireless Internet access is needed by a handful of Wi-Fi users.

Scenarios where mobile WAN routers are an ideal choice for workgroup Internet access include colleagues gathering to collaborate on a project, first responders requiring Internet access at an emergency scene or disaster site, and sales teams needing to demonstrate cloud-based products and services at client sites or trade shows.

In such cases, mobile WAN routers can get small groups online quickly, without searching for a public Wi-Fi hotspot or getting permission to use a private WLAN. Compared with conventional WAN routers, mobile WAN routers require very little set-up and are optimized for convenience. Just be sure to select routers that can meet your security needs, and define acceptable use policies to promote safe sharing.

Mobile WAN routers can cut total Internet access costs by reducing individual mobile broadband subscriptions and Wi-Fi hotspot accounts. Workers who carry multiple devices -- especially notebooks -- are good candidates. However, unless your company has a solid VoIP-over-Wi-Fi solution, users who carry one notebook and one phone may be happier with mobile broadband tethering. Those who travel infrequently should choose a day pass mobile WAN router.

Limited battery life makes mobile WAN routers more appealing in cases that call for brief or nomadic use. For lengthy or continuous on-the-go use, pair mobile WAN routers with in-vehicle chargers, DC-to-AC power inverters, or other mobile power sources.

Finally, remember that 4G is faster than 3G; wireless WAN downlinks are typically much faster than uplinks. To establish realistic expectations and fine-tune settings, test mobile WAN routers with typical applications, Wi-Fi clients, and traffic loads before you buy. After deployment, monitor bandwidth consumption to avoid unexpected overage charges.

Lisa Phifer
Lisa Phifer

About the author:
Lisa Phifer is president of Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. For 28 years, she has advised companies large and small regarding the use of network solutions and security best practices to manage risk and meet business needs. Lisa teaches and writes extensively about a wide range of technologies, from wireless/mobile security and virtual private networking to unified threat management, intrusion prevention, and network access control. Send your toughest wireless/mobile questions to Lisa at her Ask the Expert Pose a Question page on SearchNetworking.com.


This was first published in March 2010

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