A new report from GlobalData suggests that fixed wireless access (FWA) deployment will soar in popularity in the next four years
FWA, effectively providing fixed broadband services using mobile network connectivity, has been a part of telecoms operators’ repertoires for many years now. For the most part, however, the technology has been viewed as a something of a stopgap, providing connectivity to the relatively small number of customers who are too difficult – or costly – to reach with traditional fixed broadband infrastructure, like fibre.
Until recently, the technical performance of FWA had been considerably below that of fibre and fixed infrastructure, meaning that operators would only deploy it in niche cases. Now, however, with the advent of 5G and recent advances in FWA technology, this is no longer the case, with FWA even able to deliver fibre-like experiences in some situations.
Couple this with some of FWA’s other inherent advantages, such as low cost, rapid deployment time and minimal invasiveness compared to digging up roads for fibre, and FWA has rapidly grown not only as a complement to traditional broadband infrastructure, but perhaps even a competitor to it.
Today, a new report from GlobalData seems to support this idea, suggesting that FWA subscriptions will come to capture 9% of all broadband accounts in the US by 2026.
The analyst firm forecasts that there will be over 1.95 million residential and business FWA subscribers in 2022, with this figure rising to 10.43 million over the next four years.
The report suggests that this boost will come as a result of increasing government funding for connectivity, which itself has been driven by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as increased consumer demand and technical breakthroughs with the technology.
“Regardless of how it is branded, FWA is answering growing residential and business demand for internet connectivity, with wireless networks often delivering broadband service in areas where other options may be scarce, as a complement to existing wired broadband service – such as when a remote worker requires a separate connection from the family’s main internet service – or as a broadband solution for short-term needs,” explained Tammy Parker, Principal Analyst at GlobalData.
“With those factors as a backdrop, 5G-enabled FWA has arrived at an opportune time, providing greater spectral efficiency and delivering faster data speeds than earlier technologies. Additionally, new plug-and-play 5G routers are making it super easy for customers to self-install FWA on the fly without having to wait for a truck roll and a technician.”
With so many benefits, it should come as no surprise to see that US mobile operators are investing heavily in their FWA capabilities.
Verizon said last year that it plans to pass 50 million homes with FWA by 2025 using its newly acquired C-band spectrum. T-Mobile also pushing its own FWA agenda, though perhaps on a slightly less ambitious scale, aiming to have 7–8 million subscribers by 2025. The company reported roughly half a million FWA customers at the end of last year.
But while both Verizon and T-Mobile pursuing a relatively similar strategy when it comes to FWA, AT&T is instead placing greater emphasis on fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP), suggesting that for them FWA will remain primarily for customers in more remote locations.
AT&T has said that it could increase its FTTP network’s scale by 4 million homes per year, on top of roughly 14 million it has already passed.
It is clear that FWA could present significant opportunities for operators, but it should be remembered that its widespread deployment will also come with its own challenges. If FWA uptake continues to increase at the scale postured by this report and the likes of Verizon and T-Mobile, pressure on their mobile networks will increase dramatically. Typical in-home broadband data usage is far higher than that of mobile handsets, meaning each FWA subscriber represents a traffic increase equivalent to multiple mobile subscribers.
Naturally, the increase in the operators’ efficiencies and spectrum availability will help to offset this increase, as will the wider deployment of mmWave spectrum, but all of these network improvements will not come cheap. A report from Analysys Mason, for example, has suggested that Verizon would need to offload 65–75% of all traffic onto mmWave to keep loading stable and to preserve mobile performance, thus requiring heavy mmWave capex far beyond the 2023 goal previously announced by the company.
Parker herself alludes to these challenges in the GlobalData report, suggesting that the operators must be careful not to overdo it when it comes to “ambitious” FWA targets.
“FWA may be one of the killer apps for 5G, not only on its own merits but because it can also be bundled with mobile service, helping operators boost their brand affinity and customer retention,” she said. “Nonetheless, there are potential hurdles for FWA expansion. These include wireless network capacity restraints and the relatively low average revenue per account (ARPA) of FWA that does not reflect the demands it puts on the network. Service providers are not guaranteed to meet their ambitious FWA subscriber goals.”
Ultimately, fibre is undoubtedly going to remain the mainstay for operators around the world when it comes to delivering broadband services, but recent developments show that FWA is gaining traction with both operators and customers. We should expect FWA’s market share to continue to grow significantly in the coming years, becoming a central part of operator’s strategy and far more than simply a niche solution for hard-to-reach customers.
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