The state of the US 5G fixed wireless access market

Improved wireless access has emerged as a promising technology that can help bridge the digital divide and change how users connect to the internet. Because FWA can provide high-speed broadband to underserved and remote areas, it has gained significant traction over traditional wired network connectivity.

FWA is still new and in the early stages of its growth curve. However, as traditional wireless slows down due to the ubiquity of mobile devices, service providers need to find new growth areas, such as FWA. FWA can serve both individuals and business consumers, said Atlanta-based wireless analyst Jeff Kagan.

“FWA allows customers to choose wireless connections for broadband to replace their existing wireline connections,” he said. “FWA’s growth will only continue to grow.”

FWA provides an alternative to traditional wireless

5G technology now provides a viable and competitive alternative to wired broadband, according to Peter Rysavy, president of Rysavy Research. As a result, mobile network operators (MNOs) in the US offer FWA services to millions of consumers, both businesses and individual users.

“Midband spectrum and millimeter wave spectrum are both used, with mmWave providing faster speeds and greater capacity and midband providing longer range,” Rysavy said.

The US broadband market has historically been defined as the following services:

  • Voice.
  • Internet.
  • Cable TV, also known as triple play.
  • Cable TV with mobile, also known as quad play.

The leading MNOs — AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon — are able to address all four of these considerations, said Earl J. Lum, president of EJL Wireless Research LLC.

“The convergence of fixed and mobile is happening slowly, but FWA has turbocharged mobile operators to take advantage of something that cable companies don’t have, which is spectrum,” Lum said.

MNOs currently develop FWA in rural and underserved areas before they start deploying in urban markets, he added.

Benefits and challenges of FWA strategies

FWA can provide many benefits, but one of its main advantages is that it serves as a competitive alternative to wired connection options. FWA costs less when combined with mobile services, Rysavy said.

FWA also has some deployment challenges, however. A disadvantage is that some locations do not have strong signals. MNOs can also limit the number of FWA users to avoid capacity exhaustion, especially if they use midband spectrum, Rysavy said. However, over time, operators will add capacity to support more connections.

While FWA gives users more control, some FWA connections are faster and more consistent than others, depending on location. Some users say they have adequate service, while others say their service speed and connection varies, Kagan said.

“Consistency is key, and FWA has not been consistent,” he said.

He added that FWA is a good service for consumers and businesses, but it will take time before it is ready for everyone. In the meantime, he said, each carrier must prepare its network and geography to provide high quality and consistent service.

Factors affecting the 5G FWA market

Service prices and overall costs for rural areas are factors positively affecting the 5G FWA market, Lum said.

“Case studies show that some people in rural and underserved areas are unwilling to pay for services,” Lum said.

Some subscribers may be convinced to sign up for FWA only if they receive subsidies at the state level, he added. In addition, factors such as coverage, availability and performance affect their decision, especially if the radio frequency (RF) link uses mmWave spectrum.

Unlike fiber, coaxial or sub-6 GHz frequencies, mmWave frequencies in the 24 GHz to 47 GHz range are easily affected by rain and weather obstructions that affect connectivity and overall speed, Lum said. said. Bad weather can disrupt radio signals and disrupt broadband connections.

Constrained capacity, especially in the midband spectrum, is another challenge to the growth of the 5G FWA market. However, small cells and mmWave technology are particularly capable of increasing capacity in many deployment scenarios, Rysavy said.

According to Lum, other challenges MNOs must face for market growth include the following:

  • How many points of presence are there in rural and underserved areas? What is the likely penetration rate in this market?
  • How quickly can MNOs address the coverage issue and improve take-up rates?
  • How fast can MNOs deploy FWA in urban areas?
  • How can MNOs use spectrum efficiently between FWA and mobile services?

“It takes time for each carrier to build its networks in its operational areas and footprint,” Kagan said. “At the same time, prices must be competitive, and innovation must be high. The task is to deliver something that customers don’t have yet.”

A huge potential customer base is at stake

Each MNO has a different approach to 5G FWA, Rysavy said. For example, T-Mobile is focusing on midband spectrum, while Verizon is working on mmWave. Over time, each FWA method will gain millions of users.

Both businesses and consumers can take advantage of FWA, but so far, most of the interest in deploying FWA has focused on how it can provide connectivity to individual users. A strong FWA connection enables individuals to connect to business networks, especially in remote areas with limited connectivity options.

According to Lum, approximately 60 million US residents live in rural areas. August 2021 report from the Pew Research Center found that 72% of these residents already have some type of broadband internet service.

“That leaves 16.8 million who are not connected for any reason, which could include costs or prices,” Lum said. 20% to 50% of unconnected customers could sign up if there were subsidies, he added. The other 50% — customers who are already connected — may turn to FWA.

Potential for market growth

The potential for 5G FWA market growth is impressive, especially as the technology continues to improve. Potential features include the ability to use higher RF, deploy radio repeaters and develop new technologies, Rysavy said.

According to Kagan, the success of FWA will depend on the quality, connection, reliability, speed and latency of the services.

David Weldon is a business and technology writer in the Boston area who covers topics related to data management, information security, healthcare technology, education technology and workforce management.

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