Fixed Wireless Access - FWA - Broadband Technology

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA): A Competitive and Growing Broadband Technology

By Dr. Rikin Thakker

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) was thrust into the limelight in 2022 by a boom in subscriber growth across the country. The top two wireless providers added an incredible 900,000 new US subscribers in Q3 alone, and Ericsson estimates in their recently-published Mobility Report that there were more than 100 million FWA connections globally at the end of 2022.

While not a new offering, improvements in spectral efficiency, hardware, and deployment of new 5G technology has unleashed FWA growth in recent years. This has, in turn, shown that the technology is a robust alternative to fiber and cable broadband services. The Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) released a new report today that dives into the growing FWA network opportunity, exploring how FWA works and how it compares to other broadband technologies.

The topline takeaway? FWA can be deployed at a lower cost, in less time, and offer download speeds comparable to fiber. And there is an important added benefit—in many circumstances, the same network can also be used to expand the reach of mobile broadband connectivity.

Because it does not rely on a wired connection to the end user, FWA has some inherent advantages over other fixed technologies (e.g., cable and fiber) in deployment cost and time. FWA is a technology used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to offer broadband access to subscribers via a wireless technology between two fixed transceivers. The key advantage: FWA allows service providers to bring wireless internet access to homes or businesses without laying fiber or cables to provide last mile connectivity.

This can often result in significant cost and time savings in difficult terrain and/or in rural areas. With respect to cost, the WIA report notes that typical per-household fiber deployment costs vary from a low of approximately $800 in a dense urban neighborhood up to $6,000 or more in a rural area. In extremely remote areas, this can be between $50,000 and $100,000 per-household. One the other hand, FWA typically ranges from less than $200 to about $1,800 per-household, remaining relatively consistent across diverse regions and topography.

Despite using a wireless medium instead of a wired connection for last mile connectivity, FWA internet speeds and data throughputs are competitive and comparable with other technologies, including fiber. In fact, thanks to the advancements in electronics, antennas, and technical standards, FWA has already proven itself by providing high speed and quality internet connections in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Perhaps nothing drives this point home more than the growth in subscribers, with Verizon clocking over 1 million FWA customers and T-Mobile counting over 2 million FWA customers at the end of Q3.

The analysis of the comparative advantages of FWA in the new WIA report comes at an important time, as states have started to evaluate different broadband technologies while preparing their five-year plans for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) funding. Even though BEAD funding will be the largest federal investment in broadband expansion ever, state broadband offices will face hard choices on where and how to spend their federal broadband dollars to efficiently close broadband access and equity gaps.

Choosing the right mix of broadband technologies to wisely spend federal dollars will be the key to efficiently closing these gaps. States can do this by ensuring they have the flexibility to choose the right technology for the right deployment scenario. This will necessarily include a mix of different technologies depending on a host of factors. Fiber to the home will make sense in many areas, but it is increasingly clear that FWA needs to be a part of the technology mix to connect all unserved and underserved homes and ensure funds are available to meet other non-deployment needs.  

To further capitalize on the benefits of FWA, states and localities should also seek to lower barriers to entry for fixed and mobile operators. Accelerating the application review process for critical broadband projects and harmonizing right of way access fees, for example, will help incentivize consistent investments across jurisdictions, increasing competition and driving down costs for consumers. FWA deployments are forward-looking and have the additional benefit of providing the underlying equipment needed to expand mobile services alongside fixed. With the right rules and processes in place, states can lay the groundwork for wireless infrastructure that can support connectivity both in and out of the home.

With FWA’s ability to be deployed at a lower cost, in less time, and offer download speeds comparable to fiber, I expect to see another big year for the FWA market in 2023. More importantly, I hope states recognize the value of the FWA opportunity, and work to take full advantage of the many benefits this robust broadband technology provides by factoring FWA into their BEAD plans.