Enterprise / Networking / Internet / WAN

Wavelength Services: A New Breed of High-Capacity WAN

Rob Rodier
Optical Wavelength Services (often called “Wave Service”) have been made available from several carriers over the last few years and are an exciting emerging product. Wave Service is a subset of WAN connectivity and is a point-to-point solution that connects an A and Z address. Waves are high capacity, with most carriers offering services up to 100 gbps. Waves are also low latency, in that they are layer 2 links. These attributes make them exceptional choices for transmitting large amounts of time-sensitive data.

Many of our customers have been recently opting for Wave Services over traditional WAN solutions like MPLS and SD-WAN, so we decided to post about why an enterprise may be better suited to opt for a Wave circuit versus a more traditional WAN solution.

What exactly is a Wave?

Wave providers typically use dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) technology that allows for multiple, private, high-capacity circuits to be delivered over a single pair fiber. Just how many circuits can be provisioned can vary based on the hardware that the carrier has deployed, but in many cases it is possible to achieve as many as 192, 100 gbps “channels” over a single pair. Newer technologies are on the horizon that will enable even more efficient delivery of service and increased pair capacity.
DWDM overview courtesy of TechTarget

Who uses Waves and why?

Waves can be leveraged by anyone but in most cases are used to connect an office back to a data center, or to connect a datacenter to another datacenter / DR environment. (Note: we wrote about how oversaturation of WAN links is a common “gotcha” during a DRaaS deployment in our Ultimate DRaaS Guide, having a 10gig link to the DR facility would certainly mitigate this!) We have also worked with enterprises who use Wave circuits to edit video, replicate large amounts of data, or provide a LAN-like user experience to people accessing resources at a remote site. The most popular use cases for Wave services are:
  • Accessing offsite storage
  • Performing real time data replication
  • Disaster recovery
  • Video editing and transfer
  • Large file transfer
  • Low latency
However, we also see Wave services being adopted by organizations who prefer the architectural simplicity of a hub and spoke network topology for accessing centralized servers and enterprise resources. Wave services work great for this architecture, as they are truly private circuits, which enables centralized firewalling with no need for the management, complexity, and cost of deploying edge security at each node of the WAN. CenturyLink’s Wave service even offers options for layer 1 encryption to mitigate sophisticated packet capture attacks like MiTM. Additionally, public internet Wave connectivity within a DC is significantly less expensive than even well connected on-net buildings. We have seen 10 gbps fixed ports for as low as $950/mo available in many large data centers (see more our analysis on DIA costs here). All of this comes together to make a compelling case for Wave connectivity within any large or high tech enterprise.

Types of Waves

As with everything else in telecom, there are various types of waves that all carry their own alphabet soup of abbreviations. WDM (wave division multiplexing) comes in several flavors including Enhanced WDM, Shortwave WDM and CWDM. As we stated earlier, most providers that have launched dedicated wave connectivity, have done so by leveraging DWDM technologies.

Capacity and burstability

Most wave carriers tend to offer the service in a few different increments of capacity, with the most popular being:
  • 1 gbps
  • 2.5 gbps
  • 5 gbps
  • 10 gbps
  • 100 gbps
In addition to capacity, many providers also offer burstable options, meaning that you gain access to a Wave (often 10 gbps) but only commit to a using and paying for a lower committed rate, such as 1 gbps. This allows companies access to a full 10 gbps of throughput at a lower cost as long as their average utilization over a 30 day period remains less than 1 gbps. If you go over or “burst” you then simply pay a pre-set overage rate. This can work out great for companies that want access to high speed, but often see the circuit sit idly - maybe during off business hours. However, we recommend considering burstable options carefully, as you can end up paying a whole lot more than just buying a fixed port if you are not careful.

Protected circuits?

Many Wave providers also provide the option of subscribing to a “protected” circuit, meaning the circuit has multiple paths to ensure that if a network issue or fiber break occurs traffic has another path to get to its destination. While this is a great option to ensure service availability, protected circuits often cost MUCH more (and for good reason) than non-protected circuits. In fact, we have found that oftentimes protected circuits can cost TWICE as much as a non-protected offering. While this may work for some organizations, we always suggest considering diversity by opting for multiple Wave circuits from different providers. While you may need to do a little more homework on how each specific circuit is routed to avoid common failure points between carriers (that pole outside the office that the 18 wheeler sometimes hit) you often gain a level of resiliency that is superior to a one carrier solution at a price point that can be very competitive to a single carrier protected offering.

Zayo’s diverse California “ladder” (as of 7/2020)


Since waves are dedicated enterprise centric services, they all come with an availability SLA that is at least 99.9%. Additionally, some carriers will also SLA round trip latency, packet loss and jitter. (Sometimes at an additional cost)


Given the fact the waves are high capacity, the electrical interface is out and services will be handed off via your choice of SMF or MMF fiber from a network interface device (NID) that is installed on site by the carrier. In most cases, ethernet will be the protocol. However, in some cases (a carrier using it for backhaul perhaps) more exotic interfaces can be obtained. In almost all cases, the wave service will utilize one of the follow specifications below:
  • Ethernet - 1 GBPS, 10 GBPS LAN PHY, 10 GPBS WAN PHY, 100 GBPS
  • SONET - OC -48, OC -192, OTN OTU-1, OTU-2, OTU-3, OTU-4
  • Fibre Channel - 1.062 GBPS, 2.125 GBPS, 4 GBPS, 10 GBPS

Carriers and Cost!

While waves services are becoming more widely available, they still as of today remain a “big carrier” type of service based on the fact that such high capacity requires that fiber must be available at and in between each address. From what we have seen, Zayo and CenturyLink (Level 3) tend to be the most widely available. Zayo recently announced expansion of Wave availability and we expect to see other carriers do the same. Below is a list of carriers that currently offer nationwide Wave services:
Ultimately both availability and pricing are likely to have wild variations based on location and specific configurations. We have seen non-protected 10 gbps priced everywhere from $2,500 / month for both sides, to over $10k / month. We have also seen build costs that were well into the 6 figures. When shopping for Wave services, having both data to reference as well as empirical experience with exploring solutions is essential for flushing out the best options (or, just try Lightyear’s tool :) ).

Wrap up

Waves are cool! Their ultra high capacity and super low latency performance opens up a plethora of options and network topologies that were often far too expensive for even a medium sized enterprise not long ago. If you are considering a wave solution, we would love to help! We offer an online first experience for spec-ing out and requesting competitive Wave bids from all the carriers discussed here.

To get started, take 5 minutes and fill out our questionnaire.

Alternatively, if you have questions or want to talk, hit us up at [email protected]!

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