Analysis: Can 3G be trusted for IPVPNs?

As Virgin Media Business launches its first 3G-based IPVPN, we ask whether the mobile network can be relied on for business purposes

Virgin Media Business (VMB) today launched an IPVPN – internet protocol virtual private network – but with a twist. Rather than working from a wired connection, this product enables employees to access their corporate network securely over 3G signals.

VMB argues this will help businesses stuck in remote locations unable to get superfast broadband and offer an emergency back-up for when wired networks fall down.

But are companies ready to trust 3G networks and are they strong enough to support the corporate world?

Who can benefit from a 3G IPVPN

A 3G network can be significantly more flexible than its fixed line cousin. Despite progress being made to roll-out broadband to more remote areas, there are still several places in the UK where the likes of fibre, or even copper, connections are a distant dream.

3G coverage is still more patchy than people think [and] EDGE is a frustrating experience for people used to fast fixed broadband

Dan Bieler, principal analyst, Forrester

Neil Rickard, research vice president for Gartner, made this point, saying: “3G IPVPNs are [an] interesting proposition for extremely remote locations where the cost of building out the fixed infrastructure would be prohibitive such as remote locations of utilities.”

These are the type of companies VMB said it was targeting, namely utility companies with remote assets and particularly water companies, where ADSL wasn't available.

But there were more types of businesses that could benefit too.  

“The [3G IPVPNs] are [also] especially useful for organisations needing rapid deployment of new locations, such as construction companies or retailers looking to open new stores quickly or support temporary “pop up” locations,” added Rickard.

However, there is also a place for them in a more traditional corporate environment, according to the analyst.  

“3G IPVPNs can also be very useful to provide a highly separated backup option to complement wired WANs (wide area networks),” he said. “Unless special measures are taken, two terrestrial connections will usually follow the same physical route and are therefore vulnerable to simultaneous disruption.”

“[Using] cellular [networks] provides a much higher degree of separation.”

The pitfalls of relying on 3G

Although all of these scenarios seem to fit the bill for the product VMB is launching and other companies like it, relying on 3G is not all plain sailing.

Dan Bieler, principal analyst at Forrester, said 3G could be a “true life saver” when fixed lines failed, but added: “3G coverage is still more patchy than people think. EDGE is a frustrating experience for people used to fast fixed broadband.”

Bengt Nordström, CEO of analyst firm Northstream, also said the performance levels of a 3G network compared to the traditional fixed line could lead to issues for a firm.

“A potential challenge will be the limitations on data throughput, latency levels and indoor coverage,” he said. “For example, if you have a high traffic load situation a 3G IPVPN would not cope as well as a fixed line connection.”

Rickard siad that even in a built up area where 3G signal was more powerful, businesses could still suffer from traffic on the network.

“3G lacks quality of service and performance guarantees, and experience has shown 3G networks can become congested especially in metropolitan centres,” he said.

“Cellular availability is typically lower than a terrestrial line and it has higher latency. If used for high volume data applications, such as video streaming it can be very expensive.”

What about the 4G future?

VMB has said it will only focus on a 3G product for now but, if the 3G network does not offer the reliability and performance needed by a company, what about when operators begin rolling out 4G?

“LTE is a much better technology in most aspects,” said Nordström. “It utilises spectrum that delivers better mobile coverage, both indoor and outdoor, and it has much higher throughput and much lower latency.”

This means a 4G IPVPN could offer many more of the assurances a business customer would be looking for.

“4G will increase the capacity and reduce the latency of cellular connections, which will be helpful for cellular IPVPNs,” added Rickard. “It may also lead to lower unit prices.”

3G lacks quality of service and performance guarantees

Neil Rickard, research vice president, Gartner

“The 4G standards also include the option of quality of service on the cellular connections, which would greatly improve the consistency of performance of these types of connection.

But Bieler said companies must not pin all their hopes on the next step, but continue to prepare for the future.

“4G is an important stepping stone in the mobile broadband evolution, but ultimately there will be 5G and 6G,” he said. “Connectivity providers need to continue to invest in quality network infrastructure.”

Should companies invest in 3G IPVPNs?

There are clearly specific scenarios where 3G IPVPNs could fit the bill. In areas where there is strong 3G but no fixed line access, it seems like a no-brainer, places that need rapid deployment could do a lot worse and the extra fall-back of a cellular network for a nervous corporate could bring some peace of mind.

However, businesses need to examine the availability of 3G where they are going to deploy these solutions, as well as any interference they may face from other users on the network. Only then will they know if the investment could be a success or whether they will just end up with an extra redundant box in the corner.

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