More than a year on from the declaration of the coronavirus pandemic, the criticality of high-speed broadband access has never been so acute. For remote education, entertainment and work, it has acted as a lifeline to tools such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom. For the economy, it has become a lifeblood, supporting uninterrupted productivity across enterprises.
During this time, fixed wireless access (FWA) has been the primary mode of broadband for millions of people. Rural and urban, it has provided a competent Internet experience where there remains no viable economic case for fibre deployment, and where other obstacles including difficult topographical features inhibit rollouts.
The combination of increased spectrum availability, enhanced equipment performance and more accommodating zoning regulations means fixed wireless access is riding a wave of opportunity.
After a coloured decade in the 2010s, Fixed Wireless stands ready for 5G.
Over the last decade, the fixed wireless access market underwent a constant state of flux. While it started with WiMAX and the promise of new frontiers in data speed, it ended with the transition to 4G LTE based on standard 3GPP architectures, driven by compelling cost and performance advantages.
This technology evolution enabled the number and diversity of wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to grow markedly. Independent specialists such as Rise Broadband and Starry Internet are matching up against new competitors in the form of traditional fixed, cable and mobile operators, each of which is pursuing the “wireless extension of fibre” for last mile connectivity.
Fixed wireless solutions also continue to vary in their respective methods of delivery, from the common macrosite-fed approach that can serve premises across several kilometres to more localised in-fill solutions from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub. These different deployment strategies lend themselves to differences in performance characteristics and, therefore, addressable use cases.
Much of the market still revolves around the provision of permanent broadband access to a specific location like a home or business premise. While this serves the basic need to access Internet services for new use cases like telehealth, it also usually enables IPTV and voice telephony solutions to be enjoyed.
For enterprises, fixed wireless remains the go-to solution for Internet access where wireline broadband infrastructure is lacking. In other use cases, it facilitates connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, and can also be used as part of fixed-to-wireless failover solutions. IoT-based applications for real-time monitoring are plentiful now as well.
Machine to machine (M2M) use cases have become more commonplace too, and these are based on private fixed wireless networks operated by utilities for the purpose of controlling smart grid assets.
Mobile Incumbents see Opportunity in Fixed Wireless Market.
As mentioned, traditional mobile operators intend to continue to expand their fixed wireless footprints with the aid of 5G-NR and (with) further mid and high-band spectrum deployments. While it represents an extremely capital-intensive exercise, operators see value in new revenue streams and enhanced subscriber retention through service bundling.
Armed with a leading mid-band portfolio, T-Mobile expects to gain between 7 and 8 million new fixed wireless subscribers within the next five years. It successfully conducted an LTE-based pilot with about 100,000 subscribers recently, and this momentum will accelerate as it adds further spectrum assets to its portfolio, including the recently-acquired C-Band licenses.
AT&T, meanwhile, already covers 1.1 million rural locations with a fixed wireless service. It recently announced plans to expand the service to business customers, providing access to its 5G networks across both low-band and mmWave spectrum.
Out of the big three operators, Verizon is perhaps the most upbeat about the prospects for its fixed wireless service. It has raised its coverage goal to 50 million customers by 2025 across rural and urban areas, anticipating revenues to reach about $1 billion by 2023. Big Red’s “5G Home” solution is currently available in parts of 18 cities.
Cable operators such as Comcast and Charter will continue to dip their toes deeper into the fixed wireless market too. Spectrum acquisitions including CBRS have laid the groundwork for the extension of their existing cable and WiFi footprints, increasing their addressable subscriber base in a cost-efficient manner.
OTARD Rule Changes simplify Densification efforts.
The continued reformation of planning and zoning laws over recent years has been of particular benefit to WISPs. Through ambitious programmes including the “5G FAST Plan”, the FCC has sought to reduce barriers to deployment, which have traditionally led to increased costs and extended rollout timeframes for fixed wireless services.
In January, for example, the regulator announced an important rule change concerning the deployment of over-the-air reception devices (OTARDs) or small cell antennas. Prior to this, the rules did not apply to such devices in cases where they were used primarily as hubs to distribute service to multiple subscriber locations through a relay architecture.
Put simply, the move enabled the extension of OTARD protection to broadband-only “hub and relay” antennas, provided they satisfy other rules such as specified size limitations. For densification purposes with mid and high-band spectrum in urban environments, this represented a significant development.
Following the rule change, former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai explained that “extending OTARD protection to qualifying broadband-only antennas will remove unreasonable barriers to deployment erected by third parties, such as local zoning laws and private restrictive covenants as well as excessive permitting fees”.
Spectrum Auctions and Government Stimulus Spending foster Expedited Deployments.
Investment in the acquisition of further spectrum assets remains a constant feature of the fixed wireless market. The coronavirus pandemic, in particular, has underlined the criticality of high-speed broadband and spurred significant increases in traffic volumes, especially in the uplink.
In response, WISPs have been engaging in densification work and upgrading sites with more spectrum, higher order MIMO and greater use of fibre for backhaul. Fortunately, the FCC intervened to provide Special Temporary Authority for over 100 WISPs to use the 5.9GHz band as a mechanism to further enhance network capacity.
The participation of WISPs in the CBRS Auction last year also represented a significant milestone for the industry, and paves the way for a combination of PAL and GAA-based fixed wireless deployments. In the field, downlink speeds in excess of 250Mbps over several miles have been reported.
Government stimulus spending will aid CBRS deployments over the coming years as part of efforts to tackle America’s digital divide. Phase 2 of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), for example, is slated to provide $11 billion in funding towards expanding rural broadband access.
Similarly, the recently signed “American Rescue Plan” has also designated about $350 million in funding to states, and some of this is likely to be leveraged to support fixed wireless deployments.
But the digital divide isn’t just confined to rural America. Starry, a fixed wireless provider present in markets such as Boston, Los Angeles and New York City, started to offer a 30Mbps symmetrical broadband service to 29,000 units of public and affordable housing at the beginning of this year. Named the “Starry Connect” program, it provides Internet access for only $15 per month.
Conclusion: Fixed Wireless is set for continued growth.
The confluence of recent mid-band spectrum auctions and budding 5G rollouts is infusing renewed momentum into the fixed wireless market. Combined with increased capacity demands arising from the impact of the pandemic, there is profound economic and social impetus for continued network expansion in rural areas and further densification in urban hotspots.