Is FWA from big carriers different than FWA from WISPS?

rural 5G
There seem to be two big differences between the FWA from WISPs compared to the big carriers. (Getty Images)

A reader last week complained that wireless carriers are misleading people by talking about 5G fixed wireless access (FWA). He said that fixed wireless is not at all the same as 5G technology based on mobile standards.

One can understand the confusion. The entrance of big wireless carriers is bringing excitement around the technology but also raising questions. In addition, the very name “fixed wireless” has always seemed like a contradiction.

Wireless internet service providers (WISPs) have been offering FWA for many years, and they typically deploy it using certain techniques. And now, along come T-Mobile and Verizon saying they’re offering FWA, and they’ll be using different strategies.

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

There seem to be two big differences between the FWA from WISPs as opposed to the FWA from the big carriers: 1) point-to-point versus point-to-multipoint deployments; and 2) the different types of spectrum.

WISPs deploy the FWA in locales that need broadband where other options such as fiber or cable are not available. They deploy “fixed” radio transmitters (base stations) on vertical structures in a vicinity and then use “wireless” to reach receivers at the customer premises.

WISPA chart
WISPA and The Carmel Group

Fred Goldstein, who is principal at Interisle Consulting Group and also the main technical consultant for WISPA, said the base station, itself, is a point-to-multipoint device. But the receiver at the customer premise is a point-to-point device that is usually mounted on the outside of the house with the antenna pointing toward the base station. 

“The subscriber radio is functionally a point-to-point radio,” said Goldstein. “We use a directional antenna talking to one other point, which is the base station.”

Recently, both Verizon and T-Mobile have been touting their 5G FWA services. They’re offering point-to-multipoint services that leverage their existing “fixed” LTE or 5G base stations.

RELATED: Verizon debuts all-in-one 5G Home receiver, Wi-Fi router

But at the customer premise they provide a device that Goldstein says is similar to mobile devices. “The subscriber radio is not a directional antenna at all,” he said. “The CPE is similar to handsets or similar to a router that picks up a cellular signal and transmits Wi-Fi around the house. It’s effectively a mobile device. The customer is not going to climb up on the roof and install and align an antenna.”

He said WISPs put a fixed antenna outside the house and point it at one base station. The big carriers are putting a CPE inside the house that picks up signals from all directions. 

Different spectrum

The second big difference between FWA from big carriers and FWA from WISPS has to do with spectrum.

The mobile carriers own spectrum over much of the United States. With FWA, they can take advantage of their licensed spectrum that otherwise lies fallow in many rural areas. ReconAnalytics analyst Roger Entner said in an earlier interview that the mobile carriers are “piggybacking” their FWA connections off their existing mobile network.

Goldstein agreed, saying mobile carriers can offer FWA where they have surplus capacity on their licensed spectrum. And they can also use carrier aggregation, combining different spectrum bands for their FWA deployments.

Meanwhile, a WISP usually sets up FWA in a localized area and chooses the best spectrum for that locale. 

WISPS have typically used unlicensed spectrum for their FWA projects, including spectrum in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and “TV White Spaces” (TVWS) bands.

The Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) recently commissioned a white paper about FWA written by The Carmel Group. “One of the biggest events ever to reshape the fixed-wireless ISP industry occurred in 2020 when the FCC auctioned licenses in the CBRS band (3.55–3.7GHz),” stated the white paper.

RELATED: Why small wireless carriers care about all the CBRS hullabaloo

Almost 70 WISPs won more than 3,600 CBRS priority access licenses (PALs) to serve 1,235 counties, marking WISPs’ largest-ever role in an FCC spectrum auction.

“The CBRS auction proved that when the rules enable smaller entrepreneurial players – such as WISPs – to participate, they do,” stated the Carmel paper. “The auction also reflected a growing maturity and sophistication of the fixed-wireless industry, given its traditional primary reliance on unlicensed spectrum.”

In the United States at the start of 2021, Carmel estimates there are at least 2,800 fixed-wireless-centric operators of various types. They deliver internet services to an estimated 6.9 million subscribers, a five-year increase of more than 70% above The Carmel Group’s 2016 estimate of 4.0 million subscribers.