5G technology comes replete with game-changing characteristics; new services, new business models, new delivery mechanisms, new network architectures, and more abound. Among them, the emergence of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) which for the first time enables mobile technology to converge with fixed-line fiber and GPON services and price points, may be particularly interesting to watch.
Solving the high-speed broadband problem
“The high-speed broadband problem” is well documented and often discussed (beyond as well as inside the telecoms industry itself). Reaching further-flung geographies (whether suburban or rural) to meet both domestic and enterprise requirements in areas where laying fiber is prohibitively expensive is an ongoing issue and the failure to find a viable solution has to date slowed the rollout of high-speed data services.
For sure, there have been workarounds that attempt to solve the problem by bypassing the local loop (WiMAX for one) but for a variety of reasons (among them the need for completely new overlay infrastructures and costly proprietary equipment), they’ve failed to gain widespread adoption.
Now, perhaps, there’s a real answer; FWA. Fixed Wireless Access uses standard 3GPP architectures and legacy mobile infrastructures to provide high-speed broadband wherever it’s needed. The Ericsson Mobility Report 2022 suggests that FWA will offer broadband to over 800 million people by 2027, though around 230 million connections, adding “FWA will play a key role in closing the digital divide where the pandemic has exposed large gaps for education, remote working and small businesses”. This underlines that the approach is credible.
Moreover, FWA can be a tool to seed markets – using wireless technology to drive connections to a limited number of premises then, once critical mass has been achieved, switching to digging the streets or hanging fibers to build on a commercial bridgehead.
Defining Fixed Wireless Access
So, what exactly is Fixed Wireless Access? Ericsson, again, offers one definition: “A connection that provides primary broadband access through wireless wide-area mobile-network-enabled customer premises equipment (CPE). This includes various form factors of CPEs, such as indoor (desktop and window) and outdoor (rooftop and wall-mounted). It does not include portable battery-based Wi-Fi routers or dongles”.
For mobile operators, this is an attractive commercial proposition. The acquisition of new spectrum for 5G and the land-costs of bringing the technology physically closer to end-users, both already largely done, represent sunk costs. Delivering FWA coverage provides a way of further exploiting (or spreading) that investment. And there are a lot of opportunities to ensure this happens. The analyst firm, Analysys Mason, suggests there are 293 million addressable premises globally whose high-speed broadband needs could be met by FWA in 2023.
Where are those millions? In part, FWA may be a geographic play. Both Analysys Mason and Ericsson predict that the largest opportunity for the technology will lie in emerging countries where fixed broadband availability is presently limited though it may well prove a competitive option in developed markets where wireline alternatives are prohibitively expensive too. The Latin American 5G FWA market provides one example of the scale of the opportunity. It’s expected to be worth nearly USD 4 billion in 2030, with 21 million subscriptions (Ericsson, ibid).
All of this means that FWA is likely to rapidly become an anchor service for both existing MNOs, greenfield start-ups and even classic fixed-line providers who can quickly deploy independent 5G FWA in tandem with MNOs to create MVNOs that may own neither mobile infrastructure nor spectrum of their own but can provide FWA.
Either way, any fiber provider should be looking closely at the ability to adopt this technology – just as any mobile service provider may be eyeing the chance to further monetize its investments in macro networks by adding FWA in chosen sites.
If we’ve established that the opportunities for FWA are extensive, it’s important to note that they don’t come without deployment challenges, many of them familiar. Sites will in some cases have to be acquired (to plug coverage holes) and some existing mobile sites may have to be modernized with new equipment and technologies. Transport infrastructure may need to be upgraded to meet high cell throughput and cope with higher capacity traffic volume.
Plus, the massive multiple input multiple output (MiMo) antenna required by FWA impose a unique deployment constraint due to their weight and there’s a need for optimal network planning to cover RF performance and propagation at higher bands. None of these challenges are necessarily barriers to entry, but it’s important to note that no matter how big the carrot, FWA isn’t simply plug and play.
There’s also the question of fiber necessary to reach the cell site for backhaul. And network planning is required here too, to avoid performance bottlenecks. FWA providers must be sure to avoid Single Points of Failure (SPOFs) – using multiple fiber connections to backhaul to the core or selecting other technologies (such as microwave or satellite) to provide backups.
Understanding the risk of SPOFs and mapping these to any network plan is an essential task. And, if the backhaul fallback (such as microwave) doesn’t offer the same performance as the primary routes, then this needs to be well understood so that customer expectations can be managed effectively. So, full visibility of FWA locations and assets is critical, so access to accurate inventory oversight must be in place.
Solutions and conclusions
As the Ericsson and Analysys Mason reports and research underline, Fixed Wireless Access represents a significant opportunity that can’t and won’t be ignored by the market. However, it’s not a panacea and it will be best used alongside other technologies to deliver fiber performance where it provides the most appropriate solution to meet the specific challenge at hand.
Critically, FWA deployments must be integrated with existing inventory, so the operator can see – and manage – everything in the network at the same time, visualize assets mapped to the locations being served. Here, having access to Network Inventory Management functionality is critical to delivering the performance and results expected from FWA deployments.
We can confidently predict that in 2023 and beyond, both interest and investment in FWA is likely to surge. To move seamlessly towards maximizing the significant commercial opportunity it affords, Network Inventory Management from market-leader VC4 is likely to become a core step in the transition process.