FWA takes a shine to mmWave spectrum: Special Report

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Some operators are rolling out fixed wireless access (FWA) in dense urban areas using mmWave spectrum. (Pixabay)

In some ways, fixed wireless access (FWA) is the star of the show when it comes to millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, which often gets slammed for its poor propagation characteristics but shines when it comes to lightning-fast speeds. Millimeter wave technologies is one of the topics that will be covered during a session on Wednesday, July 22, as part of the FierceWireless’ Summer 5G Blitz week.

Let’s face it: There’s a lot of mmWave spectrum in the U.S. Until the CBRS auction, which gets underway July 23, the auction of the upper 37, 39 and 47 GHz bands represented the largest spectrum auction in the nation’s history, with 3,400 megahertz up for bid. That auction garnered $4.47 billion in net proceeds, with Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile spending top dollar.

One big reason operators are interested in 5G FWA is it enables them to compete outside of their traditional market without having to invest in a lot of new infrastructure. Verizon often reminds folks that it’s using the existing mobile 5G network to offer its Verizon Home Internet service, which it intends to offer in 10 markets by the end of 2020. IHS Markit points out that fundamentally, all operators need new customers and new revenues, and 5G FWA offers a means of reaching untapped markets or delivering high-speed connectivity upgrades to existing ones.

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Boston-based Starry uses the 37 GHz band in five markets where it offers a FWA service: Boston, New York, Denver, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. It’s also participated in mmWave auctions, acquiring a significant amount of 24 GHz spectrum.

Using mmWave spectrum to deliver a fixed internet service for $50 per month is part of Starry’s strategy. It’s primarily targeting multi-dwelling units (MDUs) but in Boston this fall, it will be adding a radio that is cheaper and smaller to serve single family homes, according to Starry co-founder and CEO Chet Kanojia.

Starry uses 802.11ax technology. The company has not yet disclosed when it will start rolling out the 24 GHz spectrum it acquired at auction. It also expects to use the 6 GHz band, where 1,200 recently became available on an unlicensed basis.

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In Europe, Orange’s priority is using the 3.5 GHz and 700 MHz bands. Orange is based in Paris; France has postponed its 5G mid-band spectrum auction until this fall.

However, Orange, which is active in Western and Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East, tested FWA in a 2018 trial in Romania using 26 GHz mmWave spectrum and found the technology worked well, according to Yves Bellego, director of Network Strategy at Orange. The next step will be larger-scale tests to assess more precisely the cost of installation and overall economics.

The other scenario where it’s eyeing the use of mmWave is for mobile usage, such as hot spots in stadiums, shopping malls and other high-density traffic areas. It’s currently working with a French railway company in the town of Rennes, where it’s assessing how well it works to provide, for example, service for customers to instantly download movies before they get on a train and to provide service for people who work at the railway station.  

That said, Orange is not betting heavily on small cells because they’re rather expensive compared to traditional macro cell deployments, according to Bellego.

“Our priority on 5G is the 3.5 GHz band,” as well as the 700 MHz band, he said. “When it comes to millimeter wave, that’s not something that is in fact the first the priority in terms of timing.”

In Western Europe, for example in France and Spain, it’s going to continue deploying fiber, but in Eastern Europe, the markets and revenues are different, and “we need some complementary solutions to bring broadband to the households in Poland. 5G millimeter wave is one very good technology to fill that need,” he said. That need will emerge, he said, and Orange looking for solutions in coming years, when that spectrum will be awarded.

Looking beyond mmWave

Ted Rappaport, founder of NYU Wireless, led groundbreaking research into the use of mmWave spectrum and was instrumental in getting the U.S. to take an aggressive stance.

Granted, it’s more difficult to get a signal from outside a building to inside using mmWave frequencies, but once it’s inside, it’s super-fast, he said. In the majority of cases today, the mmWave signal is fine outside an office or residence, but the service provider will use Wi-Fi inside the building. Verizon, for one, is exploring alternative, newer repeater technologies that bring the 5G signal into the home.

Having the ability to use mmWave spectrum inside buildings is necessary because it gives users another way of connecting alongside Wi-Fi, according to Rappaport. If one is congested, the consumer’s device can use the other.

He and his students also conducted tests in rural environments and found that mmWave can be an alternative to fiber. “I think that’s such a huge opportunity to use 5G,” he said, where mmWave gear can replace bad copper. It can also be a lot cheaper to put a wireless radio on a pole and make a daisy chain of wireless rather than dig a trench to reach these remote places.

While the wireless industry is busy with commercial 5G deployments using various spectrum bands, the academic and research communities are thinking about even higher spectrum bands. It’s early days for spectrum above 95 GHz, known as the terahertz (THz) spectrum. However, “there’s definitely going to be a need and technologies will be developed,” Rappaport said. “That will be part of 6G.”