A wide area network (WAN) is a telecommunications network, usually used for connecting computers, that spans a wide geographical area. WANs can by used to connect cities, states, or even countries. WANs are often used by larger corporations or organizations to facilitate the exchange of data, and in a wide variety of industries, corporations with facilities at multiple locations have embraced WANs. Increasingly, however, even small businesses are utilizing WANs as a way of increasing their communications capabilities.

Although WANs serve a purpose similar to that of local area networks (LANs), WANs are structured and operated quite differently. The user of a WAN usually does not own the communications lines that connect the remote computer systems; instead, the user subscribes to a service through a telecommunications provider. Unlike LANs, WANs typically do not link individual computers, but rather are used to link LANs. WANs also transmit data at slower speeds than LANs. WANs are also structurally similar to metropolitan area networks (MANs), but provide communications links for distances greater than 50 kilometers.

WANs have existed for decades, but new technologies, services, and applications have developed over the years to dramatically increase their efficacy for business. WANs were originally developed for digital leased-line services carrying only voice, rather than data. As such, they connected the private branch exchanges (PBXs) of remote offices of the same company. WANs are still used for voice services, but today they are used more frequently for data and image transmission (such as video conferencing). These added applications have spurred significant growth in WAN usage, primarily because of the surge in LAN connections to the wider networks.


WANs are either point-to-point, involving a direct connection between two sites, or operate across packet-switched networks, in which data is transmitted in packets over shared circuits. Point-to-point WAN service may involve either analog dial-up lines, in which a modem is used to connect the computer to the telephone line, or dedicated leased digital telephone lines, also known as "private lines." Analog lines, which may be either part of a public-switched telephone network or leased lines, are suitable for batch data transmissions, such as nonurgent order entry and point-of-sale transactions. Dedicated digital phone lines permit uninterrupted, secure data transmission at fixed costs.

Point-to-point WAN service providers include both local telephone companies and long distance carriers. Packet-switched network services are typically chosen by organizations which have low volumes of data or numerous sites, for which multiple dedicated lines would be too expensive.

Depending on the service, WANs can be used for almost any data sharing purpose for which LANs can be used. Slower transmission speeds, however, may make some applications less practical for WANs. The most basic uses of WANs are for electronic mail and file transfer, but WANs can also permit users at remote sites to access and enter data on a central site's database, such as instantaneously updating accounting records. New types of network-based software that facilitate productivity and production tracking, such as groupware and work-flow automation software, can also be used over WANs. Using groupware, workers at dispersed locations can more easily collaborate on projects. WANs also give remote offices access to a central office's other data communications services, including the Internet.


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Pecar, Joseph A., Roger J. O'Connor, and David A. Garbin. The McGraw-Hill Telecommunications Factbook. McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Sharp, Duane E. "Wide Area Networks: The Key to Enterprise Productivity." Canadian Manager. Summer 1996.

SEE ALSO: Local Area Networks

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