Can FWA Maintain Its Successful Trajectory?

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By bringing together insights from a broad set of  players, the  FWA Forum launch last month was an opportunity to gain further insight into the direction of the FWA market, helping to answer questions on the future of FWA and what we need to be thinking about if we want it to continue on a path to success, writes  PETER JARICH.

Over the past year or so, I’ve attended an increasing number of briefings and events focused on fixed wireless access (FWA). One thing always amuses me: the context-setting part that highlights how FWA is not actually a new technology or service. It’s a fair point, and only serves to remind me that I started looking at the space about 20 years ago.

I was there for LMDS in the US, for the plethora of proprietary solutions for leveraging MMDS (2.5 GHz) spectrum, and for the rise and fall of WiMAX. I believed in my overly optimistic market forecasts. Mostly, however, I believed (and still do) in the promise of using wireless technologies for fixed broadband use cases.

It was great, then, to tune into last month’s FWA Technology Forum launch. The Forum brings together FWA-focused operators, manufacturers and analyst shops, with a goal of driving the industry and driving collaboration across industry players. And, if nothing else, it was an important reminder of some key market realities: FWA services play a critical role in connecting the unconnected; with 100 million users across 4G and 5G technologies, it’s no longer a niche technology; and the industry is now supported by an array of suppliers, giving operators plenty of equipment choice but potentially making those choices more difficult.

By bringing together insights from a broad set of FWA players, the Forum launch was an opportunity to gain further insight into the direction of the FWA market, helping to answer questions on the future of FWA and what we need to be thinking about if we want it to continue on a path to success.

What’s more important: 4G or 5G?

With 5G being rolled out around the world, it’s natural to think that any new interest in fixed wireless would be linked to it. The reality of FWA is more complicated.

Ultimately, to address rising capacity demand, operators will need to leverage all suitable spectrum. And, where spectrum is tied to a specific technology generation, this means leveraging 4G as well as 5G. Both come with specific advantages, ensuring that each has its place. 4G, for example, will be the logical option where 5G spectrum hasn’t been allocated, but also benefits from the infrastructure and CPE cost efficiencies that reflect its global scale and maturity – scale represented by the deployment of 401 FWA networks based on 4G (according to the Global mobile Suppliers Association, GSA). Clearly, there’s no shortage of successful 4G examples for operators to look to.

5G, meanwhile, will be an important technology for scaling FWA capacity and addressing new, high-bandwidth services thanks to the use of new spectrum bands but also technology innovations such as enhanced uplink and massive MIMO. Beyond bandwidth, however, 5G should help operators deliver differentiated services in the home. It’s a similar story to the way 5G is being positioned in the enterprise. And, while there aren’t as many 5G-based FWA networks, the fact remains that 50 per cent of 5G networks support FWA use cases (again, per the GSA). Since, like LTE, 5G represents a common technology that can support fixed and mobile services, this isn’t surprising.

What’s more important: networks or CPE?

It might seem silly to suggest that either network or CPE assets are more important in delivering FWA services. Services, after all, cannot be delivered without both. That doesn’t mean it’s not a question worth asking, or one without an answer.

Think about mobile broadband services. New generations of networks bring impressive features and capabilities – new speeds, new services, lower costs and added user scale. But device availability, features and costs always remain a gating factor on success. Fixed wireless is no different. Network infrastructure innovations help to make the business case, but CPE is critical to the business case in terms of costs (EG, device and deployment costs) and services (EG, home networking features and differentiated services). Now more than ever, as FWA looks to address multiple use cases, these service capabilities are critical.

And this is one place where the FWA Technology Forum could lend real value to the market. Experience sharing is a nice goal, and discussing technology trends is appropriate. Meanwhile, bringing CPE players into a solution catalogue, backed by integration testing and a CPE Open Lab, should help develop the FWA CPE ecosystem and get the right CPE into the hands of operators.

What’s more important: services or experiences?

I’ve heard the FWA sales pitch many times over the past few years. For their part, vendors often start by calling out an opportunity to connect the unconnected, while highlighting the value of specific solution assets: RAN re-use, CPE management tools, QoS and performance evaluation capabilities, service provision management (including coverage planning and prediction). All of these received attention in the Forum launch too.

Vendor marketing aside, however, this all points to the notion that FWA needs to be about more than connectivity or broadband services. It needs to be about in-home experiences. This is reflected in the way operators talk about themselves and the services they want to deliver. Just as importantly, we saw this reflected in the Forum’s discussion of using FWA to deliver multiple services (gaming, SME services, cloud services) and the provision of tools to manage the in-home experience (including a focus on in-home networking capabilities) versus simply delivering broadband to the home.

I don’t really recall how many FWA connections I forecasted back when I started looking at the market a couple decades ago. If I’m being honest, I don’t really want to remember – I’m sure I was way off. But with 400+ FWA networks built on 4G, and 50 per cent of 5G networks supporting the use case, it’s clear that we are now talking about big numbers of users and connections and traffic. That’s a testament to how far the industry has come in the past few years – but a reminder that the market’s potential is far from being achieved, and that it won’t be achieved without the technology innovation and ecosystem development that makes it easier to deploy FWA and deliver compelling services with it. While it may not deliver all of this, the FWA Technology Forum launch seems like a step in the right direction.

  • Jarich  is Head of GSMA Intelligence.
  • Editor’s Note: The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.

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