Fixed wireless access (FWA)—establishing a wireless internet connection between two fixed locations such as a mobile tower and customer home or office —is on the rise with connections forecast to increase from 60 million to 160 million by 2025. This surge poses an extraordinary growth opportunity for mobile operators in terms of capturing new customers through existing infrastructure.
In this article, we explore the strategic rationale for launching an FWA solution and highlight some important considerations for operators as they design and deploy this service.
Establishing the value of FWA
Launching an FWA solution has several strategic benefits to Telcos—though the realization of each will vary by operator and market. Key advantages include:
Unlock new broadband markets. In the EU alone, approximately seven million households, as well as a significant number of holiday homes, do not have a fixed broadband connection. In many cases, adding these dwellings to upcoming fiber expansions may be cost prohibitive to the operator, particularly in rural locations. With FWA, these homes can be equipped with fixed internet service, offering new customers speeds ranging from ten-fold Mbps on sub GHz mobile frequency bands or some few hundred Mbps on midband spectrum. As such, operators can unlock new broadband markets through FWA.
Replace or upgrade DSL connections. Changing consumer behaviors, consumption levels and expectations are prompting many to upgrade DSL lines to fiber. In some countries, the shift to fiber has made maintaining the DSL infrastructure so unprofitable that the entire technology is being dismantled. However, while many DSL customers are offered fiber as a substitute, not all have the option to transition. Assuming most DSL customers are located near a cell tower, these subscribers can be offered FWA over midband spectrums yielding speeds up to several hundred Mbps, which can be far more attractive than DSL and does not require fiber installation. Hence, FWA is a valuable alternative for fixed mobile operators to retain their customer base during a DSL dismantling—as well as an opportunity for mobile competitors to capture new customers.
Challenge the existing fiber and cable base. While FWA deployed over a 4G network cannot truly challenge high-speed fixed broadband on speed, 5G presents a significant opportunity to change the narrative. By leveraging high bands such as 3,6 GHz, 5G can provide Gbps-speeds ranging up to 1-2 kilometers from the base station. This opens an entirely new toolbox in broadband markets. For example, fixed-mobile operators can use 5G-FWA for densification within their own fixed footprints. Alternatively, mobile-only operators can use 5G-FWA to attack the fixed broadband market. Even though 5G-FWA is not expected to replace fiber, these examples illustrate how the technology has potential to disrupt broadband markets.
Release capacity in network by replacing mobile broadband routers (MBBs). MBBs, which are typically spread across networks at random, have long plagued network planners. The better signal strength of a terminal, the more efficiently it uses the mobile network’s capacity. Hence, an MBB with a built-in antenna, placed on a kitchen table, uses the mobile network inefficiently. Tests have shown that, on average, removing one MBB releases base station capacity equivalent to 3 to 5 FWA solutions with outdoor antennas. In addition, FWA customers get better speeds and more stable services. Given that many MBB customers do not use the mobility aspect of MBBs, operators should consider active measures to convert MBB customers to FWA.
Launching an FWA solution: Three considerations for a successful FWA deployment
Creating and deploying a successful FWA strategy will be unique to each operator and market. At the same time, many will face common challenges during planning and implementation. Below are three issues that most Telcos will need to consider as they design and deploy a successful FWA solution.
What FWA customer premises equipment (CPE) concept should the organization choose? There are three major FWA CPE solutions on the market: (1) Indoor router with outdoor antenna; (2) Indoor router with indoor/window antenna; and (3) Indoor router with built-in antenna. Each of these options have particular strengths and drawbacks. For example, from a network perspective, option one is usually preferred, as it optimizes network capacity while maintaining service quality. At the same time, this option requires considerable time and investment to deploy at customer locations. On the other hand, options two and three can be self-installed by customers and serve subscribers that cannot install outdoor antennas, such as people living in high rise apartment buildings. These different CPE options must be carefully considered from a technical and commercial standpoint in order to identify the optimal solution for each operator and market.
How should the organization handle mobile network capacity? FWA mutualizes mobile network assets such as backhaul, base stations and spectrum. This mean that operators rolling out FWA solutions must carefully maintain mobile service quality, as exceeding the network’s capacity with FWA will negatively impact the customer experience for both mobile and FWA customers. While mobile network capacity will likely improve significantly with 5G, the challenges associated with 4G will not disappear.
Some operators have taken an aggressive strategy, selling as many FWA connections as possible with the plan to upgrade Network capacity post sale if needed. Others have taken a more cautious approach, confirming each site and sector’s capacity prior to sale, which requires a more complex value chain. The optimal strategy will depend on the unique needs, capabilities and assets of each operator. Further, successful deployment will require the organization to identify the associated challenges and develop a plan to address them.
How will the organization optimize FWA as part of a 5G rollout? 5G rollouts will likely drive the FWA market opportunity, as the network will enable higher speeds, greater capacity and improved guaranteed service levels through network slicing. At the same time, mobile operators might try to commercially push FWA to accelerate monetization of the 5G network while 5G mobile handsets and services ramp up.
However, adoption of 5G-FWA can be done far quicker, so long as operators transition from installing 4G CPEs to 5G-compatible CPEs. Operators are now including FWA as a key factor when planning their 5G rollout programs, both to improve FWA offerings and to realize early 5G monetization. Through good analysis and planning, it is possible to find the sweet spot where broadband market specialists see high 5G-FWA potentials and mobile infrastructure planners see value from high band 5G on other use cases, such as mobile handset usage.
The opportunity — and threat — of FWA for today’s operators
Fixed Wireless Access is a highly attractive growth opportunity for mobile operators. It can generate a new revenue stream, leveraging infrastructure that is already in place. On the other hand, FWA is a concern for fixed-only operators, the majority of whom must develop a robust strategy to address this looming risk. The ongoing DSL decommissioning and 5G rollouts make developing an FWA strategy and solution more relevant—and urgent.
 European Commission: Broadband Coverage in Europe 2018. Statistics includes EU28. Fixed broadband: DSL, cable (incl. DOCSIS 3.0), FTTP & WiMAX
Authored by Espen Stræte
Espen Stræte is a Senior Consultant with Capgemini Invent’s Telecom, Media and Technology (TMT) practice. He develops and set to life telco strategies, with particular focus on 5G and infrastructure.
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