Oh, the places FWA will go

  • After initial speculation fixed wireless access is now loved by users far and wide

  • Reports from Ericsson and J.D. Power showed FWA's triumph over cable and its strong competition with fiber in customer satisfaction

  • FWA's rapid growth, especially with 5G, has challenged the cable industry

“You do not like it, so you say. But try it, try it and you may.” Like Dr. Seuss’ famous green eggs and ham, the people have tried fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband and by golly, they like it. These days it’s here, it’s there and – if a pair of fresh survey reports are any indication – it's not going anywhere.

New reports from Ericsson and J.D. Power show FWA beating cable and competing well with fiber rivals in customer satisfaction.

FWA is a form of 5G or 4G LTE wireless technology that delivers internet by leveraging existing wireless networks run by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). While FWA isn’t typically as fast as fiber, it is often cheaper, and can be a viable option in areas where it’s difficult to lay wire.

J.D. Power found that FWA users have the highest customer satisfaction rates, regardless of their location, with fiber coming in a close second. “While the performance and reliability of both fiber and 5G internet are high, the primary distinguishing factor between connection types is the cost of service,” its report said.

This is especially important as customers continue grappling with high priced consumer goods and inflation. Cost will “likely play a pivotal role in industry disruption, with all signs pointing toward more customers actively seeking out FWA,” J.D. Power predicted.

A report from Ericsson found that fiber had a higher overall customer satisfaction than FWA, but only by a slight margin of 2.5 points on a 100-point scale. Fiber’s score was 100 and FWA’s was 97.5, while cable lagged at 87. (Nothing new for cable, these days.)

In Ericsson's survey FWA had a higher consumer loyalty index, 118, than fiber’s (100). Fewer than one in 10 households using 5G FWA would consider terminating their subscription within a year. FWA also had a better cost level index (105), than fiber's (100).

Peter Linder, head of thought leadership at Ericsson, North America, said historically, the best FWA performance has been a generation behind the best wireline performance. But the introduction of 5G “changed the game.”

Ericsson’s report found 5G FWA has become the primary connectivity for nearly three-quarters of U.S households that opted for FWA in the past year, “showcasing a shift from traditional fiber and cable solutions.”

Can FWA keep the ball rolling?

FWA is putting pressure on cable and fiber players, and analysts predicted Q1 will be especially bleak for cable.

In a note this week TD Cowen analysts predicted that cable’s total internet adds will be down a record 22% to 555,000. “Cable should see the worst 1Q losses on record,” the note said.

Linder noted the debate against FWA initially focused on raw performance, ignoring that FWA doesn’t cost as much to build as wired connections and is faster to deploy.

Now, fixed and mobile broadband are decoupled from each other, and “all tier 1 providers today compete with dual play strategies, where mobile network operators offer FWA and MSOs offer mobile services.” In addition to their expanding networks, FWA providers have also attacked “all other aspects of the broadband value proposition to make buying, installing, billing and support easy.”

It might be bad news for cable, but FWA is here to stay, according to Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner.

Recent data from his company showed that in less than three years, 7.9 million customers signed up with FWA as their preferred internet solution. For big MSOs, continued growth will “seriously cramp their style,” but for small, rural telcos, “it’s an existential crisis.”

“It will be years before it slows down,” he said. “If cable wants to slow this down, it can start offering better customer service. It can stop offering exploding prices. It can treat its customers better. It can offer a more reliable service that will do the trick.”

On the flip side, companies that have embraced FWA are reaping the rewards.

Fixed wireless is a key piece of Verizon’s growth strategy in 2024 and beyond, according to the carrier. It gained 354,000 net FWA additions in Q1 this year, bringing its FWA base to 3.4 million.

The FWA market has been so far dominated by T-Mobile and Verizon, but AT&T is also embracing the technology now. New Street Research recently predicted the company will add around 180,000 FWA subs per quarter over the next few quarters, with a peak expected to come in six to eight quarters.

Likewise, MediaCom is expanding its FWA footprint, and tapping nascent tech provider Tarana, which specializes in FWA equipment, to do it.

Capacity evolution

Both Verizon and T-Mobile set initial 2025 FWA targets (4-5 million and 7-8 million, respectively) but both are looking for ways to grow beyond those figures.

That could happen by opening up more millimeter wave spectrum.

“There's so much headroom for FWA growth, it’s not even funny. Especially if the Congress allocates spectrum for licensed use,” said Entner.

More spectrum is one piece of what Linder called the coming “capacity evolution.”

Because fixed broadband drives 10-20 times as much traffic per home as a smartphone subscription, network planning will play a key role in keeping FWA going, Linder said.

“At some point on the journey, mobile and fixed wireless traffic growth can saturate the capacity provided from existing radio sites, and trigger a network densification in markets where there remain opportunities to grow market share,” he added. To improve capacity, providers will also need to leverage device ecosystem advancements with new terminal options.

FWA services are growing around the world but it's largely consumer for now. Making inroads in the enterprise arena appears to be the next horizon. And we’ll be watching progress on that front closely.

Editor's note: This story was updated 4/29/24 with accurate FWA targets for Verizon and T-Mobile.