Broadband service providers are under pressure to address customer, competitor and regulatory demands to deliver both increased speeds and higher levels of coverage. To deliver ubiquitous ultra-broadband services that tick all end-user requirements, operators are digging deep into their technology tool box to ensure the service speed, cost and time-to-market priorities for different service areas can be met.
Thanks to technological advances and a shift in market trends, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technologies – both in licensed and unlicensed spectrums – have become a viable option that operators can now draw on to deliver ultra-broadband services to subscribers no matter where they live.
Need for speed
Today, only 32 percent of all households across the world benefit from broadband speeds of 1 Mbps or faster, based on data from IHS Markit. In addition, only 7 percent of today’s households have access to speeds of 10 Mbps or above. While regional variances exist, such low figures speak volumes, highlighting the large portion of the world’s homes collectively that are lacking a reliable fixed connection to the internet. Clearly a significant opportunity exists to provide ultra-broadband services. So, what’s the hold up? It all comes down to the economics.
Areas lacking connectivity in developed countries tend to be in rural locations that aren’t well served as it is too costly to deploy new broadband connections or upgrade existing infrastructure for the small number of premises it will serve. Meanwhile in developing nations, having the sufficient capital to invest in ultra-broadband in the first place poses a real problem.
While it may be challenging to reach these unserved and under-served regions, choosing not to act is no longer an option for operators. Policy makers are becoming more demanding regarding the minimum service levels and coverage operators must provide. Customers are also wising up, demanding faster speeds for their money, making it clear that they are ready and willing to switch providers to get it.
So where does the answer lie for operators? If time and money were unlimited, fiber would connect every home. However, the economics of serving all subscribers no matter where they are means taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the ultra-broadband technology is no longer a viable option. Having access to a mix of technologies that can effectively address each unique ultra-broadband requirement and use-case is becoming vital to success.
Enter FWA – why the time is right
For many years, FWA technologies have been viewed as a promising alternative for areas where it is too difficult, too costly or too time-consuming to deploy a wired broadband connection. But for many years, these technologies have failed to live up to expectations – until now, thanks to four primary factors.
First, technology has caught up with the vision, taking the concept of FWA beyond simply being a niche solution. Licensed spectrum for 4G and soon 5G mobile technology can fulfill the demands of fixed broadband. Unlicensed WiGig (60 GHz 802.11) offers a low-cost, high-speed technology choice. Both WiGig and 5G make use of higher spectrum which increases capacity, allowing operators to offer gigabit services without compromise.
Second, communication service providers themselves are converging. Consolidation has resulted in more converged operators that can use fixed or wireless infrastructure to serve residential subscribers. Although fixed operators are deploying fiber wherever is feasible, alternative solutions are needed to serve areas where fiber remains impractical.
Third, internet usage via mobile devices has surged with the majority of that usage happening over a fixed access connection via WiFi. Users move seamlessly from a mobile connection outside the home to a fixed connection within their homes. This has brought a general acceptance for the wireless technology to provide home connectivity although consumer expectations for reliability and throughput differ.
Finally, demand for broadband is at an all-time high, creating a widespread need for more ultra-broadband services that can address the new ways consumers work, play and interact with the digital world around them.
Out of this perfect storm of circumstances, FWA is finally a viable addition to the toolkit of technologies that operators desperately need to connect the unconnected.
Finding the right “W” for FWA
Choosing the right wireless technology for your application is critical. FWA options can be broken down in many ways. The clear division is in licensed and unlicensed spectrum as not all operators have licenses and those that do want to leverage them as much as possible. The other natural split is on wavelength typically defined as sub-6GHz vs millimeter wave.
Traditional cellular networks use macrocells to serve a large number of users over vast distances. Licensed spectrum technologies are traditionally deployed in traditional cellular bands below 6 GHz. Operators with an LTE license and some spare capacity can consider using existing networks for fixed wireless broadband services. This is a particularly appealing option in suburban and rural areas where end-user density is low. Here, a mobile operator can introduce fixed wireless services with a minimum investment in the radio access network (RAN). In urban areas where competition is fierce and consumer expectations are through the roof, operators can invest in wider spectrum dedicated to FWA to ensure that high throughput with a guaranteed sustained rate is possible. Finally, the evolution to 5G adds efficiency and speed to sub-6GHz, ultimately enabling operators to offer peak speeds in the 1Gbps range.
mmWave technology has recently advanced, offering up new options for FWA. These have come just at the right time as the industry looks towards a 5G future which can utilize mmWave to drive gigabit services to users. 5G mmWave, when available, will have the capacity to drive speeds above 1Gbps with fiber-like sustained speeds.
One of the most promising mmWave technologies can be found in the IEE 802.11ad standard which uses unlicensed spectrum, known more commonly as WiGig. Operating in the underused V-band 60 GHz spectrum, it can be freely used by any operator in most countries. Since it’s based on available technology and lacks the complexity that can come with mobile networks, WiGig is a good low-cost alternative for operators to extend the Gigabit speeds of their fiber networks to areas where no fiber has gone before. Compared to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH), there is a significantly reduced upfront investment cost and a more agile deployment process. WiGig can complement fiber deployments in areas where full FTTH is not economically viable. A tactical deployment would see an operator selectively using WiGig alongside FTTH to provide ubiquitous coverage to a service area, dissuading competitors. WiGig can also be used strategically for a whole service area as a lower-cost alternative to gigabit FTTH.
Challenges still exist, however, for mmWave solutions. The very high frequencies that drive gigabit speeds can’t penetrate walls, are impacted by vegetation and are susceptible to atmospheric conditions. In most cases these challenges can be overcome with the use of outdoor antennas which avoid signal loss, and line of sight planning tools that help to select the right target areas and automate planning. As a result, mmWave technologies can cost-effectively deliver gigabit services.
Balancing bitrates, time-to-market and cost across your entire serving area is the ultimate juggling act. Operators wanting to connect the unconnected, meet regulatory commitments and secure the subscriber base need every tool in the toolkit. This holds true for mobile, fixed, cable and converged operators. Each has unique challenges to address and chances are there is a FWA solution that can help each to reach their broadband goals.