Fixed Wireless Access proving essential for operators as new engine for growth
Around the world, millions of homes do not have access to fixed broadband, leaving a vast portion of the global population unconnected. While the majority of this number is comprised by developing countries, even the most developed countries in the world still have large numbers of unconnected homes – the UK, for example, had a fixed broadband penetration rate of just 79% in 2019.
In many cases, unconnected homes are situated in areas in which it is simply unprofitable for operators to deploy fibre, such as remote, rural regions. Deploying fibre broadband is an expensive, intrusive, and time consuming process, with operator’s reluctant to make a permanent commitment to a certain area unless they can guarantee returns on their investment.
The rapid development of FWA technology can in part be attributed to the specific needs of the unconnected home, but it has since evolved into a far more diverse and flexible service, becoming a mainstream service for operators due to its many advantages over typical fixed broadband. Unlike expensive and time consuming fibre deployment, FWA allows operators to offer a simple and cost-effective solution for their customers. FWA requires no intrusive trench digging; instead, customers can simply be sent the device directly to their home and install it themselves, greatly reducing the time taken to receive connectivity services, as well as the costs incurred for the operators. Recent advances in FWA mean that the technology is more than capable of meeting the data demands of these customers, whether that be the strains of remote working or streaming high-quality video content.
“FWA is becoming an essential business for operators and can even be the best choice in many cases,” explained Yiqu Zhang, General Manager of Wireless Broadband at Huawei (pictured).
In fact, the recent coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated many of the key advantages of FWA, with the technology’s versatility and rapid deployment giving operators the perfect solution for remote working customers and skyrocketing data demand in areas without sufficient fibre broadband coverage.
“The operators can simply send the device to the end-user to offer them connectivity during this time of remote working. Some operators have seen a 50% increase in FWA during this time,” noted Zhang.
But FWA’s potential is not limited to rural deployments during times of unprecedented data demand. Instead, the technology’s rapid development has shown FWA to be an excellent alternative to fibre broadband itself in a wide range of environments.
No longer a stand-in for fixed broadband
For many years, FWA technology simply could not replicate the speed and reliability of fibre broadband, meaning its deployment was limited to specific circumstances where installing fibre was not cost effective, such as for remote communities in rural areas.
However, breakthroughs in FWA technology mean that these technical limitations no longer exist – even 4G FWA can now often provide a ‘fibre-like’ experience with speeds of up to 1 Gbps. The improved speed brings with it a host of benefits, both in terms of unlocking the latest entertainment, such as high-definition video streaming and video games, as well as services rapidly becoming considered essential, like telemedicine and remote education.
As a result, FWA is increasingly being recognised as a flexible, efficient option for carriers throughout their operating region, no longer simply a solution for hard-to-reach demographics.
“Fixed line penetration in some parts of the world, like Africa, is very low – below 10% – which makes FWA a very appealing solution for operators in these regions,” explained Mr Zhang. “However, advances in this technology mean it now has universal appeal and can be profitably deployed anywhere, not just in rural areas but also to support suburban and urban populations.”
FWA is already an essential service for operators
Operators have been overseeing the development of FWA technology for many years, with the technology already accepted as a staple offering for carriers around the world. According to GSA figures, 395 operators have deployed 4G FWA in 160 countries around the world, and this number continues to increase every year. Excluding China, 2019 saw 4G FWA gain more new users than fixed broadband, demonstrating that operators are beginning to recognise FWA technology not only as a complementary technology to fibre broadband, but also a viable, cost effective alternative. By 2020, FWA already had over 100 million subscribers worldwide.
The wide scale deployment of this technology brings with it a host of benefits for the operators, directly gaining them access to a previously untapped customer base. This can equate to a massive boost in revenue; for example, Philippine operator Globe Telecom has seen its FWA user base grow to over 1.6 million customers, which now account for 16% of their total service revenue.
FWA also allows operators to move from single-play to multi-play offerings, opening the door for rich combination packages including a range of streaming, gaming, and other entertainment services. Indeed, Italian operator TIM has already introduced a Super FWA+TV package, giving its FWA customers access to a range of video content, such as Disney and National Geographic.
Finally, FWA’s revenue generating potential is not limited to home connections, with 4G/5G FWA now easily capable of meeting the long-term connectivity needs of SMEs. Businesses are increasingly benefiting from the flexibility and reliability FWA connectivity, reducing their reliance on fixed broadband.
Operators are already heavily reliant on FWA as a key service around the world and this role will only increase in prominence as the technology continues to develop.
FWA’s growing importance in the broadband sphere
The increasing reliance on FWA as a major component of the broadband sphere is notably reflected in the technology’s prominence in the national broadband strategies of many countries around the world. FWA is currently incorporated in the national broadband plans of 16 countries and is also a major contributor in reaching international goals, such as those of the United Nations to increase global broadband access to bridge the digital divide.
The connectivity ecosystem is maturing, with legislators, operators, and technology companies all working together to embrace the advantages of FWA.
5G and the future of FWA
FWA has sometimes been considered as a “stepping stone to full 5G mobility”, assisting mobile users to make the transition for 4G to 5G, but it is far more integral than that. When it comes to international 5G deployment, of the roughly 70 operators that have currently deployed a commercial 5G network, over half of them have deployed 5G FWA services in parallel, according to the GSA’s latest Fixed Wireless Access Member Report.
These services can deliver ‘fibre-like’ speeds that will facilitate the development of the smart home, as well as enabling 4K video and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications. This will allow operators to continue to diversify their service offerings, potentially introducing combined services by matching FWA connectivity with TV and cloud gaming packages.
“Having first spotted 4G/5G FWA’s potential back in 2015, we have since become pioneers in this technology,” said Zhang. “We were the first company to provide 5G CPE (customer premises equipment) and our continued advances in CPE and base station technology will help reduce the burden on spectrum for operators and help guarantee an excellent user experience.”
The 5G FWA market is set to bloom, with analysts predicting that it will be worth almost $40 billion by 2025.
FWA is here to stay
Whether it’s providing rapid, flexible connectivity to customers beyond the reach of fibre networks, providing businesses with a better digital experience at a lower cost, or even delivering the latest experiences in the form of AR and VR, FWA is here to stay. With its enormous cost-savings and flexibility for both customers and operators, FWA will continue to blossom as it matures alongside 5G in the coming decade.