T-Mobile’s Ulf Ewaldsson says ‘time has come’ for fixed wireless

The panelists on a FierceWireless session at this week's CCA Mobile Show were pretty stoked about the opportunities for fixed wireless access (FWA) to disrupt the home broadband market.

Ulf Ewaldsson, T-Mobile’s chief network officer, said, “The dream of FWA has been around for 30-40 years, and having the ability to provide a true broadband connection to a home using wireless is something that’s been worked at for many, many years. I think 5G actually gives us the opportunity to do it.”

He said T-Mobile feels confident that it can provide a nationwide FWA service because of its spectrum position with its “layer-cake” of high, low and mid-band spectrum. T-Mobile is targeting 7 million to 8 million subs in this category within five years.

RELATED: Verizon, T-Mobile get ready to rumble with cable

In terms of rural America, Ewaldsson said, “With the merger, we have enormous commitments from the FCC and DoJ to provide coverage where there is just simply not enough. If we can provide an advantage with a combination of mid-band and low-band spectrum that gives speeds that can be used for a home broadband service, that is a big market.”

He also noted that in the cable space there is a “de-coupling” of broadband from television services. Many consumers are choosing over-the-top video rather than cable, and they’re open to choosing a separate broadband provider, which gives a new opportunity to FWA providers “This is the time,” he said. “Now is a good opportunity for carriers to go after this market.”

FWA offers rural and urban opportunity

Michael Irizarry, CTO at U.S. Cellular, said the company serves a lot of rural and suburban communities. “We have found that many are dissatisfied with their internet service offerings,” said Irizarry. “It’s not reliable, and the speeds aren’t there.” U.S. Cellular has offered, for a couple of years now, a broadband service to the home based on 4G.

Irizarry said the carrier is testing a higher speed version of its FWA product on mmWave spectrum this year to augment its current service. It may eventually market a 5G version of its FWA.

In terms of mmWave, he said the technology to tap the spectrum has come a long way. “When it was first launched by Verizon, I think the ranges were in the order of 500-900 meters,” said Irizarry. “We’ve been testing with Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and some of the handset folks. MmWave for the home ranges up to 5 kilometers. I do think there’s a place for wireless to offer competitive offerings to the existing fixed broadband offerings.”

Jasmeet Sethi, head of the consumer lab at Ericsson, said “Everybody’s betting on home wireless broadband. One opportunity is to fix the rural broadband gap. And this market by itself is quite attractive because this is new revenue. In addition, we also see there is a demand in urban markets especially among cord cutters.”

He reiterated Ewaldsson’s comments about de-coupling broadband from television services. Sethi said many cable customers are paying monthly amounts in the range of $140 to $160, and they’d like to cut the cord. “They are likely to go into a 5G fixed wireless access offering bundled with a 5G TV proposition,” said Sethi.

Ericsson forecasts about 11-12 million people will subscribe to 5G FWA by 2025, and about 26 million will subscribe by 2030.

A little cold water on FWA

Nathan Sutter is director of network operations and engineering at Nex-Tech Wireless, a small wireless provider in Kansas.

Sutter said, “We’ve had, in Kansas, a lot of really good luck with providers getting fiber to the home. The amount of spectrum required to compete with a fiber-to-the-home offering puts wireless at a pretty strong competitive disadvantage.”

Nex-Tech is focused on providing service to people who don’t have access to it. The company purchased priority access licenses (PALs) in last summer’s CBRS spectrum auction, and it’s using that spectrum for its FWA offerings.

But Sutter said, “We’ve found wireless and home fixed replacement to be sort of a symbiotic relationship, but it sort of starts to become an Ouroboros, where it’s consuming itself. We have not had good luck with co-located mobility and fixed wireless spectrum. I think it requires two different things and two different spectrum propagation characteristics. Fixed wireless access for us has been more of a point-to-point scenario where mobility operates much better in a vacuum by itself.”

There are plenty of people who are saying FWA doesn’t have the capacity to provide really good broadband coverage in rural areas. Many of these same folks are upset that so many FWA providers won Rural Digital Opportunity Funds (RDOF) in the December RDOF auction.

RELATED: WISPA claps back at fixed-wireless critics in RDOF dispute

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) filed a letter with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in February, responding to what it calls “unwarranted criticism leveled at certain winners of the RDOF Phase I auction, and the RDOF process as a whole.”

“WISPs operate across a range of frequencies, from TV White Space up through the millimeter wave bands, and while not all of these spectrum bands are capable of delivering gigabit services, that does not rule out provision of such services in many targeted areas,” stated WISPA.