With the momentum that it has recently gained, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) just seems new. In reality, it’s taken the introduction of 5G for the technology to catch up to the idea. FWA still has a long way to go before mass adoption, though. The potential is there, but so are the hurdles, according to analysts.
“Under the right market conditions, Fixed Wireless Access has a really strong part to play with 5G,” said Dan Warren, Director of Advanced Network Research at Samsung R&D UK, in an interview with 6GWorld. “Fixed Wireless Access is not a new idea, but 5G brings it a bit more into the mainstream, because you’d be able to provide it using a technology that is being used en masse scale for cellular.”
FWA deployments, including on both LTE and 5G, have surged with the advent of the latter. As relayed by Samsung Head of Fixed Wireless Access John Yazlle in a blog post, between December 2018 and February 2020, the number of service providers offering FWA increased 40%, with more than half of 5G launches globally featuring FWA offerings. According to Jack Burton, Principal at Consultancy Broadband Success Partners, 5G is the only way to go between the two options, and yet there are serious limitations.
“In [the case of mid-band spectrum] it’s really not that much new and it’s limited bandwidth. So, it’s an inferior product. To get a comparable product in terms of speed and latency, primarily speed, you need to go mmWave and, when you go mmWave, the range is so short,” he said, referring to the higher frequencies that are becoming available with 5G.
Double-Edged Sword of Pre-Existing Infrastructure
For context, based on a report by Counterpoint Research, FWA will see its current 4% share of the consumer broadband market rise to nearly a third by 2030. That figure translates to over half a billion subscribers, relying largely on emerging markets, with Ian Fogg, head of Opensignal’s analysis team, explaining how it’s a phenomenon dependent on a lack of pre-existing infrastructure.
“I think it will vary by the country, based on how widely deployed fixed wired networks are; fixed fibre, and so forth,” he said when asked about FWA’s room for growth. “In countries where fixed wired networks are not so widely available, which is in many parts of the world, in Africa, parts of Latin America, parts of South Asia, parts of even Southeast Asia, there is more of an opportunity around 5G fixed wireless access.”
Warren, agreed, but pointed out how FWA’s strength in that regard can also hold it back elsewhere.
“If you’re using a radio connection [for FWA], then you don’t need to dig the road up. You just need access to somewhere to place the antenna,” he said via teleconference. “I’m talking to you with the benefit of a fibre-to-the-curb DSL copper last-mile connection, which delivers as much bandwidth as we need in the house at the moment. So, there’s no business case for me as a homeowner… because I’ve got Fixed Wired technology and that’s probably true in most European markets, in places like Japan, Korea, probably in large parts of North America as well.”
Warren added that there are additional factors at play, including an actual requirement of fibre to feed an FWA base station.
“Before you get on to a wireless connection, you need to get the bandwidth to that point. You are dependent upon the right level of backhaul technology as well,” he said. “On top of that, it’s access to spectrum, particularly if you’re looking at doing [FWA] with mmWave band. The timeline to availability of suitable spectrum varies upon the licensing plans of regulators in different countries.”
The Problem with mmWave Spectrum
Shiv Putcha, Principal Analyst at Mandala Insights, also spoke to 6GWorld regarding FWA. He sees the currently high cost of Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) as being a barrier right now. However, as more manufacturers enter the market, he foresees the cost becoming affordable. Ultimately, the dependence on spectrum is more significant, especially as it goes higher than the mid-band to mmWave frequencies. Putcha called the latter the big wildcard.
“At the moment, the U.S. is the only one who has pushed really heavily on mmWave. Other countries have kind of held back a little bit,” he said. “So, as those also come on, I just think you have a much bigger base for FWA deployments, because no two will look the same. Each country is different. Each operator and their strategy will be different. There’s quite a few variations there. So spectrum is really the single biggest [factor] at the moment.”
MmWave spectrum presents another issue, specifically from a penetration perspective. According to a blog post by T-Mobile chief technology officer Neville Ray, “mmWave will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotpots in dense urban environments.” He illustrated his point through a demonstration of how mmWave spectrum can be blocked simply by closing a door.
Verizon, one of T-Mobile’s competitors, sees its 5G Home FWA service over mmWave as potentially “transformative,” according to CEO Hans Vestberg. However, after initially launching in 2018, the service was only available in a handful of markets ahead of a scheduled restart of its roll-out back in October 2020. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Verizon deployed FWA on its LTE network to meet demand, instead. At those frequencies though, as Burton relayed, it’s far from a disruptive technology.
Recent news of U.S. Cellular completing an extended range 5G mmWave data call over 3.1 miles is reason for optimism in that regard, Burton said. U.S. Cellular accomplished the feat in partnership with Ericsson and Qualcomm, leveraging 5G CPE boasting Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 5G Modem-RF system with QTM527 mmWave antenna modules.
“You still have a penetration problem, but if you can get decent range on mmWave that makes it possible to not install hundreds of basestations to serve hundreds of customers,” he said, pointing to how, otherwise, “you’re going to need so much backhaul that the fixed provider could make a good business out of providing service to those sites.”
With regard to penetration, Steve Collins, Senior Vice-President of Access Devices at Casa Systems, explained how mmWaves are quite reflective and can use traditional building materials effectively as mirrors to provide service to end users. Even so, speaking at a Fierce Wireless webinar entitled “5G mmWave: Disruptive or Disappointing,” Collins admitted, “it’s very hard to assume a ubiquitous coverage using mmWaves.”
“The solution for mmWave is to not plan just the base station and the transmission from base station. You need to think about the end-to-end service that you’re going to be providing to the end user, what kind of service are you going to provide, what kind of speed do you want to provide,” he said.
“It’s very hard now to just have one ubiquitous network when you need 100 types of [user experiences] that will work on it… It does make it a little bit harder to deploy and plan a mmWave service, because there’s so much to think about, but it is doable and if people think of broadband as a home offering via wireless is a good idea and a good business case, there’s lot of tools available, lots of devices becoming available to facilitate that.”
With journalism credits spanning several sectors including finance and tech, Ryan joins 6GWorld with wide eyes looking onward. He aims to lend his experience to the site, covering the latest generation of cellular advancements as it unfolds, leading into 6G.