Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) has traditionally been considered a solution for low-density rural connectivity, where deploying copper and fiber is often cost prohibitive. New spectrum availability and the advancement of technology, however, has created an opportunity for FWA in urban and suburban areas to provide coverage in residential and multi–tenant deployments, retail establishments and businesses. Network operators, integrators and neutral–host networks are beginning to realize the new economics and market opportunities afforded by FWA.
A virtual Connect (X): All Access panel explored this emerging trend in a session hosted by Connect (X) Executive Producer Tim Downs and featuring insights from Ken Haase, VP, Global Telco Broadband Devices, CommScope; and Drew Ludwick, Director of Network Services, Tilson Technologies. The panel, titled “Capitalizing on the New Economics and Market Opportunities in FWA” is available on demand, along with other content, at https://connectxallaccess.vfairs.com/en/hall#auditorium-section
“The dynamics are changing and newer technologies, newer frequency bands, CBRS as well as 5G NR are giving us performance and propagation characteristics that are really allowing for signals to penetrate a little bit farther than they used to be able to, in some cases a lot farther or through more materials than they used to be able to,” said Haase. “We’re seeing the opportunity now to bring fixed wireless solutions in the form of a standard–looking home gateway.”
Key to the usefulness of FWA in non-rural markets is the development of self-installable indoor customer premise equipment (CPE) solutions that can reduce the need for truck rolls for professional installation. Haase said he expects CommScope fixed wireless gateways to be on the shelves of consumer-facing retail outlets like Best Buy within the next five years alongside its wireline gateways.
“I call it the three-minute install,” said Haase. “We were doing these demos at CES earlier this year where you literally turn the gateway on and your entire technical capability needs to be around the ability to plug in a power cord. If you can do that, you can be on broadband.”
This level of simplicity could reduce the need for truck rolls for professional installation of FWA equipment, saving service providers money, increasing employee safety on deployments and allowing technicians to provide white–glove services to customers when they are on site.
“You still might have a technician rolling to a site, helping to install CPE,” said Ludwick. “Maybe their focus shifts more and more toward that customer service connection — helping them set up different applications or different hardware in their house. More and more we’ve got automated houses, and it may be hooking up their coffee pot, their fridge or their toaster now, whereas before they were spending more time on the roof.”
This could change the dynamic of the wireless workforce and also give rise to new types of service providers. Municipalities, utilities and school districts could find themselves offering wireless service to citizens, customers and surrounding homes. Tilson, which is focused on engineering, deployment and abatements of hybrid solutions that include FWA, has been in discussions about projects with schools where CPE could be shipped with pre-configured SIM cards that make deployments essentially plug and play, an attractive prospect for school officials who don’t want complicated deployments, said Ludwick.
Haase said CommScope’s Ruckus team is working on Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) deployments today with schools in underserved and low-income communities, where the roof of the school becomes the tower and homes in the vicinity of the school can take advantage of the higher speeds provided by CBRS using an in-home gateway. This is a particularly interesting concept considering the new realities of hybrid and distance learning necessitated by COVID-19.
“We are seeing more and more of the public private partnership model really come to the table where a municipality or a school district has identified a need — and it can be in a traditionally rural area or it can be in a denser area where there’s low income areas — where the municipalities are willing to invest (to) build infrastructure and turn it over to an ISP who in turn will operate the network,” said Haase. “Or municipalities that want to own the network and provide a specific type of service that also ties into a maybe a smart–city offering. We are absolutely seeing more utilities coming to the table, where they own quite a bit of infrastructure in the right place and it’s cost effective for them to deploy fiber across their transmission lines. That opens up quite a few options in terms of how we scale off of that backbone, and that can be a hybrid solution where you are able to extend with fiber in some areas but also weave in these different fixed wireless deployments.”
Among the new spectrum and technology opportunities that are changing the outlook for FWA are CBRS, millimeter wave and 5G NR, the panelists said.
“Fiber to the home or fiber to the premise is a preferred solution, but it’s not always the market–ready solution,” said Ludwick. “In that type of scenario, a hybrid deployment can really step in and enhance the service quickly, allow rapid deployment at lower cost. We’ve got this toolbelt now. On the low end we’ve got TV white space and 900 MHz is still viable. We’ve got the newer availability of spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range with CBRS, and 5.8 GHz is still viable in some areas. And then you talk about the high spectrum, high–bandwidth millimeter wave solutions that are available. More and more products are coming to market, which is driving the price down and driving the quality of these products up. We consider those to be components of our toolbelt. We will use the right tool and the right spectrum to meet those needs.”