Schoolar: Is fixed wireless access a thing…again?

Fixed wireless access (FWA) or wireless local loop (WLL) is one of those telco topics that never goes away while never really becoming mainstream as an access solution. When I started covering wireless technology back in the early 2000’s my first topic was FWA. Back then the solution of choice was Wi-Fi or some proprietary derivative of Wi-Fi. Then of course WiMAX came along. For those who have forgotten WiMAX was originally designed for fixed services, not mobile. Since then, other than a few pockets of news like Australia’s National Broadband Network talk of using wireless for a local loop has been relatively silent. However, that appears to be changing.

The names of companies starting the conversation around fixed wireless access this time are much higher profile than what I have seen in the recent past. Ericsson of course is a given supporter for FWA thanks to its work in Australia. The company also counts AT&T and several US rural operators as customers of its current FWA solutions. Both Huawei with WTTx, and Nokia with FastMile are now pushing FWA as a last mile broadband access solution.  All of these vendor solutions use LTE and LTE- Advance Pro technologies to push network capacity towards the 1Gbps threshold. This is big improvement over earlier FWA options.

Operator interest in FWA appears to be growing as well. AT&T, Verizon, and even Google have all shown public interest in FWA. With AT&T and Verizon the operators are expected to initially launch 5G as FWA services. So the question is, why might it be different for FWA this time?

The reason it might be different this time isn’t the vendors. Huawei and Nokia (including Alcatel-Lucent) all made a run at WiMAX.  This time it is the operators and their use case for FWA. 

In the past FWA was either being deployed by smaller operators with limited resources or deployed by major operators in very selected markets. Those markets for the most parts were areas not covered by any type of fixed broadband and often rural and sparsely populated. FWA was only used in cases where other options didn’t make sense. AT&T and Verizon seem to be taking a different approach this time at least when it comes to 5G. Based on what I have gathered those two operators are looking to deploy FWA using 5G in areas that one would normally expect them to place FTTH. They are now considering FWA as a last mile connection for everywhere, not just rural communities. Googles appears to be considering FWA as an option right next to fiber as well thanks to its acquisition of Webpass.

This change in use case matters. It creates a much bigger market for network and CPE solutions. Rural is a niche market with low volumes. Going after bigger markets for FWA will create more service demand, increase broadband competition, spur innovation, and help drive down cost of the network and CPE. All of those things will be key in sustaining FWA.

Technology also plays a big role in the change for FWA this time. As stated earlier, with LTE-Advanced Pro technologies network capacity can be pushed upwards to 1Gbps. This is significantly higher than older FWA solutions that might have offered a max of 100Mbps of capacity. FWA capacity will only increase with 5G.  This makes FWA competitive with fiber and copper based broadband systems. It also allows operators to offer more than just Internet access with FWA. These newer FWA systems will be able to support voice and video services as well. 

The mix of technology and operator interest really makes it appear that this time FWA will gain traction outside of rural markets. And, if that is the case I won’t be writing in five years – is FWA a thing again. In that case FWA will already be a thing.

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.