Marek’s Take: Is fixed wireless the answer to bridging the digital divide?

Marek's take

I remember writing about fixed wireless access (FWA) more than 20 years ago. At the time, it was considered a costly alternative to wired broadband services like DSL or cable. 

But those early fixed wireless internet services were often fraught with issues. Some offerings required line of sight between the receiver and the wireless base station. That meant that the connection was often unstable. In addition, it also required a technician for setup and installation and the monthly fees were usually quite high.

Today FWA is experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to better equipment and increased demand. Lack of broadband connectivity — the FCC estimates that there are 21.3 million Americans or 6.5% of the population without adequate broadband — has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and FWA is considered to be the quickest way to meet that demand.

FWA to the rescue

In Ericsson’s Mobility Report that was released in late November, the company predicted that FWA connections will grow more than three-fold and account for more than 180 million connections worldwide by the end of 2026. It also said that it expects FWA will make up about 25% of total mobile data traffic in the next six years. 

Even though the pandemic may have prompted the surge in the number of people working and learning from home, most experts think that the demand for home broadband will continue long after the Covid-19 crisis has ended. According to a CoBank Report from lead economist Jeff Johnston, the high demand for broadband connectivity to homes, coupled with the increase in data traffic, is causing investors to look favorably upon fixed wireless providers and most believe the need for home broadband will continue to escalate.

To meet this demand, many wireless operators are starting to offer FWA using their existing LTE networks. Ericsson said that it surveyed 311 service providers globally and 200 had FWA offerings. This is double what Ericsson reported in December 2018.

In the U.S. we’re seeing growth in FWA offerings from wireless carriers. For example, Verizon is selling a fixed wireless service on its LTE network in parts of 189 markets in 48 states. The service costs $40 per month for Verizon customers and $50 per month for non-Verizon customers. Likewise, AT&T is offering FWA on its LTE network in parts of Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana. The service starts at $50 per month. And T-Mobile has a fixed wireless service available in Detroit, Minneapolis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh as well as smaller markets in Michigan and Minnesota.

Even smaller operators are getting into the game. Shentel, which offers wireless services in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kentucky and Ohio has an LTE-based fixed wireless service that costs $60 per month.

Easing into 5G

The escalating demand for home broadband couldn’t come at a better time for wireless providers that are rolling out 5G. In 2019 many wireless operators were struggling to find a compelling business case for 5G but thanks to the pandemic, they have one: FWA.

A new report on 5G use cases by analyst firm Omdia and sponsored by Nokia, found that FWA was offering many wireless operators a way to ease into 5G. Launching 5G as a home broadband service is a familiar business model for operators and they have the right equipment and vendor partnerships in place to offer it.  

Omdia also found that nearly half (47%) of the communications service providers that it surveyed said that FWA was one of the top two use cases for 5G. Many service providers view 5G FWA as a way to capture a new customer base and offer broadband where other fixed broadband technologies are not economically feasible to deploy.

Although some operators may start by deploying fixed wireless using LTE, analysts believe that 5G FWA will be more dominant. Speaking at FierceWireless5G Blitz Week virtual event, Shiv Putcha, founder and principal analyst with Mandala Insights, said that he believes that while suburban residential customers will benefit from FWA in the short-term, the technology will also be appealing to enterprises and small and medium businesses in the long term. 

However, Putcha and other panelists at the 5G Blitz Week noted that most operators are still focused on suburban and urban areas for their FWA deployments despite the fact that rural areas are in tremendous need for this technology.

Unfortunately, the underlying issues with providing FWA service in rural areas remains the same as with any broadband service — service providers need a lot of potential customers in an area to make it profitable. Starry COO Alex Moulle-Berteaux said during the FierceWireless 5G Blitz Week panel that his company needs scale so it can hit its price point and deliver service to customers with a price-tag of $50 per month.

That’s why efforts such as the FCC’s $9 billion 5G Fund for Rural America are going to be key to shrinking the digital divide. FWA might be the best technology to help those in underserved communities, but it’s still going to require a compelling business case for operators to deliver it.