CBRS-based FWA beats Starlink performance — Madden

Joe Madden

During the first year of COVID, I moved to a rural area in Central California and I started to conduct my business via Zoom calls over a fixed-wireless link. As many of you know, I was forced to shut off my camera on many calls due to inconsistent performance.  

During September, I started using Starlink and that was a major improvement over an 802.11-based fixed wireless access (FWA) link. The uplink was consistently higher, although Starlink gave me "hiccups" periodically.

This week, I’ve taken a third step and upgraded to a CBRS-based FWA link. And I thought that it would be useful to share my journey with the industry, as we can take some important lessons from the comparisons.

First of all, I’d like to point out that speed of the connection has very little impact on my decision. ALL of these broadband links provide adequate speed in an Ookla test: somewhere between 10 Mbps and 120 Mbps. My household is pretty typical — our throughput needs range from 1 Mbps to 8 Mbps, so any of these options seem ok at a surface level.

The problem has been consistency, so I’ve started to test packet loss instead of throughput as the primary metric for comparison. Here are my results:

Mobile Experts internet

Technical Notes:

  • These are results for one specific location only; comparison not valid for every location.
  • Packets received over 250 ms latency are considered too late to be useful for video conferencing.
  • Comparison testing used large packet sizes (900 bytes) to simulate HD videoconferencing traffic.  
  • The terrestrial 5 GHz and CBRS links reach about 15 km using a small rooftop dish.
  • My location is ideal for Starlink: on a hilltop with clear skies and no cities within 30 km.
  • The closest LTE tower is roughly 3 km away and includes at least 700, 850 and 1900 LTE bands.

So, even though a basic speedtest shows good results for all of these links, I consider the CBRS link to be the best at this time. In a nutshell, it looks like the CBRS link has the strongest uplink and the most consistent performance.

We have a lot more depth on this topic at Mobile Experts. We have studied the cost of fiber, satellite and terrestrial FWA options. We investigated the viability of millimeter wave for FWA. This testing confirms our predictions that CBRS and other terrestrial licensed links will play a major role in FWA growth for the next 10 years.

Why did I bother to write all this in an article for Fierce Wireless? Because I see a problem in our industry. All kinds of broadband service providers advertise their data speeds, making consumers think that they need gigabit speeds. But people don’t really need that, and the services with lower packet loss are the real winners.

So, I challenge everyone in the broadband industry to change the way that we compare networks. Speed tests don’t tell us much about the capacity of the network, or the reliability of the network, or the true latency with larger packet sizes. Packet loss testing can help to fill in key missing information to give the end customer the smooth experience they’re looking for.

Joe Madden is principal analyst at Mobile Experts, a network of market and technology experts that analyze wireless markets. 

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of FierceWireless.