The Quest for Five 9s Making For Strange Bedfellows

Today I’d like to discuss three facts that are leading to a tectonic shift in cellular carrier business practices, and the implications of this shift:

Fact One: The world of cellular carriers is fiercely competitive.
(After having spent 17 years with one of the largest cellular carriers, I can assure you it’s true.)

Fact Two: Enterprises are embracing wireless as the primary access connection for mission critical applications.
A 2013 Computerworld article citied a Vanson Bourne survey of 4G adoption among British organizations with at least 500 employees. Sixty percent of the more than 200 IT decision-makers surveyed said they want to take advantage of 4G in the near future.

Fact Three: These same enterprises are often demanding 99.999% (“Five 9s”) reliability.
(And there is general agreement within the industry that no single connection—whether wired, wireless, or fiber—can achieve Five 9s alone. Some sort of failover connection is necessary.)

Put these three facts together and you can see why something strange is afoot in the cellular carrier industry: Carriers are now, in certain cases, buying each others’ data capacity wholesale and selling it as a failover solution along with their own primary connection solution.  You got that right. These companies that normally fight against each other tooth and nail are behaving almost like “frenemies”—engaging in unheard of “coop-etition” to maintain account control of their customers.

Say, for example, that an enterprise with multiple branch locations purchases Cradlepoint AER2100 devices, each of which is equipped with two modems. A customer seeking Five 9s reliability could choose to subscribe to two carriers, assigning one modem to Carrier A as the primary connection, and the second to Carrier B as failover.

On the other hand, there’s that fierce competition thing. Carrier A sees this arrangement as tantamount to letting Carrier B get its foot inside the customer’s door. Carrier A avoids this by offering Carrier B’s services themselves. There are even times when Carrier A will engage a third party in order to facilitate the solution. At the end of the day, the customer gets the Five 9s they need and Carrier A protects its accounts.

The driving force behind this unheard-of coop-etition is Fact Two—enterprises dropping their DSL and cable services and going all-wireless. With the advent of 4G LTE, wireless is finally able to deliver the kind of bandwidth, security, flexibility, and reliability that enterprise-scale companies need, and it’s affordable too.

The bandwidth or the speed of a T1 connection is 1.5 Mbps.  A typical LTE connection delivers 5-12 Mbps downloads and 2-5 Mbps uploads.  That means wireless performance is now about triple that of a T1. And instead of paying $400-500 a month for a T1, enterprises are looking at average rates of maybe $100 a month for wireless. And what are already significant savings per location can quickly reach into the millions for companies with hundreds or even thousands of branch offices.

Having said that, I should note that not all companies are jumping to add a second modem and purchase one of these “strange bedfellow” packages. The fact that some companies use wireless without a failover solution is a testament to how far wireless has come in the past few years. Landlines get cut by backhoes. They get torn down in hurricanes and tornadoes. However very few things stop cell signals. First, there simply are no wires to break. When bad weather hits, most carriers are prepared with mobile towers, backup generators, and batteries to maintain continuity.  Can a single wireless connection consistently deliver Five 9s? No. But the reliability it does deliver is good enough for many applications and in many cases, better than the wire line alternative.

Of course, if you’re one of those enterprises that’s using wireless as your primary access connection for mission critical applications and absolutely must have Five 9s, most big cellular providers have a deal for you—no matter who they have to share a bed with to make it happen.