Fixed wireless steps into the spotlight in 2021

This year fixed wireless access stepped more directly into the spotlight as major carriers emphasized new offerings with a stronger focus on the home broadband market.

As of October 2021, 77% of service providers worldwide had a fixed wireless access (FWA) offering, according to Ericsson’s Mobility Report. Operator adoption of FWA offerings more than doubled in the last three years. 5G is part of the picture for many, with the number of service providers offering 5G FWA growing by almost 25% in just six months from April to October, the report states.

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The 5G component was clear in the U.S. where T-Mobile in 2021 shifted out of pilot mode and launched commercial 5G FWA service in April. It also has a 4G LTE-based FWA offering. By December T-Mobile surpassed its year-end goal of reaching 500,000 subscribers, with plans to increase to 7-8 million within five years.

“A lot of our customers on home broadband are coming in suburban and even urban areas from cable, which is fascinating,” T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said during recent investor conference. “It’s not all just greenfield stuff where nobody has ever had an option before.”

Verizon, which had been quieter on FWA after an early limited launch of a 5G FWA offering in 2018, continued to expand its own 5G Home footprint in 2021 and now cites the technology as a strategic growth priority.   

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At the end of the third quarter, Verizon disclosed adding 55,000 fixed wireless customers for a total of 150,000. The company expects to pass 15 million homes with 4G and 5G FWA before the start of 2022. As of December, Verizon’s 5G Home tally stood at parts of 65 cities. It currently uses high-band millimeter wave spectrum for service but plans to add C-band to the mix once its deployed.

In November, Verizon CFO Matt Ellis called fixed wireless a key 5G killer app, saying “We absolutely believe that to be the case.” Other Verizon leaders such as CEO Hans Vestberg and incoming consumer chief Manon Brouillette took the opportunity at investor conferences this month to push the message of the significant FWA opportunity for Verizon.

T-Mobile and Verizon are both eying home broadband in part as a challenge to cable as they look to leverage network capacity for new offerings with improved speeds. Both took competitive steps, with T-Mobile cutting its Home Internet price by $10 and Verizon introducing a promo to pay up to $500 in early termination fees for switchers.

RELATED: T-Mobile sees 2 categories of fixed wireless opportunity

It’s not just consumers, as the carriers also showed some fixed wireless love to business customers in 2021. AT&T, which has a 4G LTE FWA product but was comparatively less focused on FWA this year, started offering a 5G flavor to business customers in March. A month later Verizon upped the number of markets where business customers could get 5G FWA from just three to 24 and continued to expand throughout the year. T-Mobile also has an FWA business product.

Not just major carriers

Fixed wireless access is something smaller rural providers have been offering for many years, and several showed up as winners in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase 1 auction. Claude Aiken, CEO of WISPA, spoke to the heightened attention FWA garnered this year.

“It’s been really gratifying from my perspective to see the industry focus on this opportunity, especially since our association has members who have been doing this for decades using a variety of different spectrum, a variety of different equipment,” said Aiken during a FierceWireless event in August. “But to see this really become a growth segment in the mind of a lot of the larger players has just supercharged the opportunity.”

RELATED: Is FWA from big carriers different than FWA from WISPS?

While rural is a big focus of where FWA can come into play for unserved communities, it’s also now an option in urban or suburban areas with limited choice of providers. In addition to big carriers, 2021 saw fixed wireless startups make moves of their own.

Over the summer startup Starry expanded into Columbus Ohio, leveraging mmWave spectrum and IEEE-based technology for FWA high-speed broadband. A few months later marked a big turning point when the company announced it was going public in a transaction valued at $1.66 billion.

RELATED: Plume raises $300M from Softbank Vision Fund 2, eyes 5G FWA

Another FWA startup WeLink kicked off 2021 with a $185 million investment from Digital Alpha. December saw a  service expansion from WeLink with new market launches in Las Vegas and Phoenix. The Utah-based service provider targets single-bedroom communities with its mesh network home broadband setup, promising low pricing and symmetrical gigabit speeds using mmWave spectrum.  

Extended range for high-speed FWA

Another highlight of FWA in 2021 was tech achievements to extend the range of high-speed fixed wireless, in some cases as an alternative to fiber.

That was seen by FWA veteran Tarana Wireless, which zeroed in on new non-line-of-sight products that promise “hundreds of megabits per customer” over a range of 3 kilometers to 5 kilometers for non-line-of-sight or 10-plus kilometer for line-of-sight deployments. Tarana nabbed interest from service providers such as BT, MTN and Wisper. An upcoming product promises gigabit rates per user, even in non-line-of-sight setups.

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

Meanwhile, regional provider U.S. Cellular marked milestones throughout 2021 in stretching the reach of 5G using licensed millimeter wave spectrum for FWA in rural areas. In May the carrier partnered with Ericsson, Qualcomm and Inseego in a field test that delivered sustained average download speeds of 1 Gbps over a distance of 7 kilometers. That record was quickly broken a month later when U.S. Cellular pushed the range 10 kilometers in 5G FWA tests over 28 GHz spectrum with partners Qualcomm and Nokia.

In addition to conducting trials, U.S. Cellular this year launched commercial mmWave FWA service in a small subset of markets with promised speeds up to 300 Mbps. It has more aggressive plans for FWA in 2022.  

RELATED: FWA is hot: 72% of global service providers are offering FWA, says Ericsson

While fixed wireless access got renewed attention in 2021, momentum is not expected to slow down in coming years.

By the end of 2021, Ericsson projects nearly 90 million global FWA connections. That figure is forecast to grow almost threefold through 2027 to reach nearly 230 million (representing 800 million individuals with access to a wireless broadband connection).  Of those, about half are expected to be 5G FWA connections.

By the end of the forecast period, Ericsson expects FWA data traffic to account for more than 20% of total mobile network data traffic globally.