The operators latest research, in partnership with CCS Insight, suggests that Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) could deliver connectivity to rural areas for half the cost of fibre

Operators around the UK are rolling broadband infrastructure at an impressive pace, battling to meet the government target of reaching 85% of UK premises by 2025. Currently, around 42% of UK homes can access gigabit-capable broadband, with estimates suggesting that this number will reach 60% by the end of the year, largely as a result of new rollouts and Virgin Media upgrading their existing network.

However, with each additional percentile passed, the task becomes more and more difficult. As the relatively easy to cover, urban areas receive coverage, operators must move on to the more challenging and less cost-efficient rural areas, most of which currently lack access to ultrafast broadband access. 
Now, new research from CCS Insight, conducted on behalf of Three, suggests that government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit is too focussed on fibre and is missing an opportunity when it comes to additional technologies such as FWA.
“Gigabit speed internet is critical for the UK’s long-term prosperity. However, the government is too focused on investing in one type of technology – fixed line,” explained David Hennessy, CTO of Three UK and Ireland. “Fixed line, or fibre, is significantly more difficult to roll out than FWA, which only needs a mobile signal to operate. It’s time for a greater consideration of a wider pool of technology, particularly FWA, to help those in rural areas have access to faster internet and ultimately help reduce the digital divide.”
FWA has numerous benefits over fibre for rural areas, including reducing the needs to build new masts and dig up the streets, as well as being quick and easy to install for customers. Reaching the most rural customers with traditional infrastructure can cost as much as £4,000 per location. On the other hand, according to the report, making use of FWA could reduce overall expenditure for rural areas by half.
The research also called for reform to the Electronic Communications Code and Permitted Development rights regime, which would make it simpler and more affordable for operators to roll out network infrastructure. In particular, the research suggested a 60% reduction in site rentals over the next decade would allow three to expand their 5G network by 20%.
“The government’s ambition to reach at least 85% of UK premises with gigabit-capable broadband by 2025 is an ambitious target. It will necessitate urgent policy reform to remove barriers to network deployment, an acceleration in build-out ambition from UK providers and an open approach to new connectivity solutions through a mix of technologies. 5G FWA can form a significant part of this,” explained CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann.
FWA undoubtedly has a role to play in providing connectivity to customers in the most hard-to-reach areas, but it is far from a panacea for the rural connectivity problem. For 5G FWA to work effectively it will require access to suitably high-quality fibre backhaul, something which is far from ubiquitous in many of these rural areas.
While FWA may well be deserving of more of the spotlight in government broadband plans, fibre will surely remain king for the forseeable future.
What role can FWA play in delivering gigabit connectivity throughout the UK? Find out how the operators are making use of FWA at this year’s live Connected Britain event
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