5G FWA study supports bid for more mid-band spectrum

A new study commissioned by CTIA shows 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services could serve 8.4 million rural households, or nearly half the rural homes in the U.S., with a cost-effective high-speed broadband option.

The Accenture report, appropriately titled “5G Fixed Wireless Broadband: Helping Close the Digital Divide in Rural America,” discusses how 5G FWA services can quickly and cost-effectively bring high-speed broadband to those 8.4 million households in rural parts of the country. FWA uses wireless links to provide last-mile connectivity instead of a cable or traditional wired connections.  

The study’s timing is not accidental: With the federal government and states poised to carry out $65 billion in broadband infrastructure programs geared toward bridging the digital divide, policymakers should recognize the capabilities of 5G FWA connectivity, according to CTIA.

More spectrum, please

If FWA is a godsend for closing the digital divide, what’s the hold-up? According to CTIA, one of the key policy areas has to do with mid-band spectrum licenses. The U.S. needs to more than double its licensed mid-band spectrum allocations to match the progress already seen in Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and the U.K., the study says.

It’s not a new message from the industry’s wireless lobbying group, but it underscores the concern here. 

In the near term, CTIA says policymakers should focus on the lower half of the 3 GHz band and identifying a set of spectrum bands for auction in the future. The 3 GHz band is ideal for a timely reallocation for licensed use in the U.S. and is harmonized with global efforts from other nations as well as equipment manufacturers. “Making this spectrum available could be instrumental for rural and suburban communities, particularly if paired with technical rules optimized for 5G,” the study says.

It doesn’t mention the current delay in the C-band launch, which seemingly would go a long way to freeing up mid-band spectrum in the super near term. However, the report refers to a C-band case study that identifies C-band as sitting within that highly desirable mid-band spectrum, known for its capacity and coverage characteristics.

“While this auction represents good progress to reallocate licensed mid-band spectrum, the full potential of wireless operators’ 5G FWA offerings will be unlocked by additional licensed mid-band access with technical requirements optimized for commercial 5G services,” the report notes.

All the big wireless carriers are making FWA investments. Notably, Verizon has said it intends to use C-band to boost the connections that people are getting in their homes. CFO Matt Ellis told investors yesterday that the C-band hardware already is in some customers’ homes, so as C-band gets turned on, they’ll be able to step up from their current version. Verizon is also using its vast holdings in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum to deliver FWA services alongside 5G for mobility.

RELATED: Verizon CFO talks C-band delay, FWA momentum

According to a 5G Americas white paper (pdf) published last week, 5G FWA will be the fastest growing residential broadband segment, exceeding 58 million subscribers in 2026.

While FWA efforts have been underway for years, 5G New Radio (NR) offers improvements in transmission, like subcarrier spacing and channel bandwidth, in a FWA environment that will foster FWA deployments in rural areas, providing higher bandwidth more efficiently than fiber, according to that report.

Separately, ABI Research released a study last week that forecasts the FWA market worldwide will exceed 180 million subscriptions and generate $70 billion in revenue in 2026. The 5G FWA market will then account for 40% of the total FWA market. 5G FWA services can be deployed faster and at lower cost compared to installing fiber to the home (FTTH), ABI notes.