COVID-19 Could Spur Demand for Fixed Wireless Access – Both 4G and 5G

Ed Gubbins – Principal Analyst

Summary Bullets:

• The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to increase demand for fixed wireless access (FWA) solutions to fill gaps in fiber broadband networks.

• 5G FWA has a mixed reputation but is improving; meanwhile, LTE-based FWA may be useful for serving some immediate needs

The COVID-19 global pandemic has resulted in a sudden and widespread explosion in telecommuting, as countless employees who can work from home now do. In many cases, these new telecommuters are using live videoconferencing tools that are sharing home-broadband bandwidth with children who have been sent home from school. The result is a sharp increase in home broadband needs. Where residences have access to fiber, these capacity needs may not be hard to meet. But fiber doesn’t reach every residence; any number of obstacles – including geographical or regulatory ones, or even sheer distance – might get in the way. Thus, demand is likely to increase deeply for fixed-wireless access solutions to fill in the gaps in fiber broadband networks.

FWA has gotten a lot of attention in recent years – not all of it good – as some operators, including Verizon in the U.S., used millimeter-wave solutions for 5G services. As operators around the world investigated the use case for 5G FWA, many have been daunted by millimeter-wave’s technological shortcomings, including limited reach, line-of-sight deployment requirements, and difficulty penetrating walls. These limitations strain the business case, requiring nodes close to end users and also often high up, on poles that aren’t always welcomed by the neighbors. Then once the signal reaches the house, cabling is often required to get the signal indoors. So it is not surprising that, of the many hundreds of mobile operators in the world, according to the GSA, only 35 have launched a 5G FWA service, and seven of those have limited availability.

The technology and its ecosystem are improving. For example, Pivotal Commware, a Seattle-area startup backed by Bill Gates, recently introduced a 5G mmWave customer premises equipment node, the Echo 5G, that is designed to be installed by end users, thus improving the 5G FWA business case by lowering operators’ deployment costs. It also uses innovative beamforming technology to penetrate the residence’s window and the indoor environment, where the company says the solution can deliver speeds in the 500 Mbps range throughout. Other vendors are also developing self-installable 5G FWA CPE.

At the same time, it is also important to note that 5G is not the only way to deliver FWA. Multiple major vendors of LTE base stations also offer LTE-based FWA, using the same base stations that offer mobile LTE service. LTE-based FWA could be especially useful in reacting to the COVID-19 crisis, as the need for home broadband is so sudden, the use of existing infrastructure could be a convenience. LTE FWA has other attractive features, as well: it doesn’t share millimeter-wave’s technological limitations, and LTE technology is mature enough that it has become both very advanced (with Carrier Aggregation and other capacity-boosting tools) and less costly.

There are trade-offs, of course. Operators that want their LTE base stations to do double duty have to be judicious about how to divide network resources and capacity to avoid short-changing mobile users. And existing mobile base stations may not be located in places that are ideal for operators’ particular FWA ambitions. Still, it may be the best option in some cases. And as demand for FWA increases swiftly, operators will appreciate having multiple options.

 

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