In 2023, GSMA Intelligence kicked off a new research series looking at the evolution of 5G networks and services. With the imminent arrival of 5G-Advanced, we felt it was important to telegraph 5G’s trajectory while highlighting some of the important technology and service innovations which will enable 5G to continue meeting customer demands until the end of the decade.

We titled the series 5G Next and have used it to explore technology advancements like Reconfigurable Intelligent Surfaces (RIS), along with the future roadmaps for improved network energy efficiency. Building on the strategies of forward-thinking operators, we now want to look at the ways in which evolved 5G will impact a key use case for the technology, fixed wireless access (FWA).

5G-Advanced circa 2024
5G-Advanced is the evolution of 5G services and networks beginning with 3GPP Release-18. With implementable specifications expected by mid-2024, we can expect commercial products over the next year or so, alongside lots of messaging and 5G-Advanced promotion across the breadth of the mobile ecosystem. If you have not been paying attention to the 5G-Advanced story thus far, you will have no choice in 2024.

As with any set of 3GPP specifications, Release-18 includes myriad new capabilities and features. A handful have gained the most attention given an ability to significantly improve 5G’s value proposition.

  • Data Rate Enhancement. Higher uplink and down speeds thanks to new antenna technologies.
  • Latency Enhancement. Continuing 5G’s push into low-latency communications.
  • Network Slicing Improvements. Management advances allowing more granular configuration and service continuity.
  • RedCap IoT. Reduced capability 5G NR devices on par with LTE Cat 1, with reduced complexity (and data rates) corresponding to lower costs.
  • 5G Multicast. One-to-many communications over the 5G network, established in Release-17, but improved in Release-18 to broaden applications.

To be sure, there are many more features included in 5G-Advanced. And, as operators evolve their 5G networks, they will look to 5G-Advanced alongside other innovations, think mmWave 5G. But, as operators look to monetise their 5G network investments and push into enterprise verticals, these are some of the most important. Their role in executing on the original 5G promise, delivering new customer experiences, particularly for B2B use cases, helps to explain why more than half of operators with 5G networks plan to have 5G-Advanced deployed within two years of availability.

FWA and the 5G-Advanced connection
When we hear about 5G-Advanced use cases and applications, a handful follow from the technology capabilities promised. Think MR and metaverse services thanks to improved uplink, latency and slicing, or deeper B2B penetration thanks to lower cost IoT and slicing enhancements. FWA is not a headline use case, but there are a number of reasons why it could be.  

Beyond any of 5G-Advanced’s technology capabilities, the top reason linking FWA to the future of 5G is market momentum. FWA has proven to be one of 5G’s breakout applications with more than 120 operators having launched services at the end of 2023. 5G network capacity combined with government connectivity mandates and a thriving FWA CPE ecosystem all contribute to this growth. Perhaps more importantly, FWA ranked as the top 5G use case in our GSMA Intelligence Consumers in Focus survey. It is an in-demand service supported by a strong technology ecosystem and societal demands.

Going forward, there is a real reason to believe that 5G-Advanced will play a role in continued success.

To be sure, top-end data rate improvements will serve as a solid marketing tool for driving 5G FWA uptake. Beyond that, however, as consumer and enterprise users engage with XR and metaverse use cases, the uplink, slicing and latency enhancements promised by 5G-Advanced should be critical for meeting their demands.  The same slicing and latency enhancements will support the extension of FWA from consumer to enterprise markets particularly where specific verticals have deterministic performance requirements. And, at the other end of the market, RedCap should allow the development of low cost 5G FWA CPE for consumer and enterprise use cases which only require 4G speeds, while still benefitting from the investment protection of a 5G foundation.

Zain turns to 5G-Advanced to drive FWA momentum
Zain KSA has emerged as a global leader in 5G FWA, using the technology to expand its presence in the fixed broadband market and monetise excess mobile capacity. It opted for a full-scale 5G rollout, making mobile and FWA services immediately available across 2,600 sites covering 27 cities when it commercially launched its 5G network in October 2019. This, in turn, enabled Zain to quickly scale its 5G FWA subscriber base; it has surpassed 800,000 FWA connections, with its subscriber base doubling every year. 

It is an impressive success story, thanks to a variety of reasons, including:

  • Availability: Zain’s 5G network now covers 5,000 active 5G sites across more than 65 cities, making FWA 5G available in many locations that do not have fibre broadband.
  • Ease of installation: FWA can be installed quickly and easily compared with alternative fixed broadband technologies. This advantage was particularly important during Covid-19 (coronavirus) lockdown restrictions when face-to-face contact was limited and demand among first-time broadband adopters soared with the shift to remote work and education.
  • Flexibility: Users benefit from FWA router portability along with plug and play installation. This feature helps to deliver uninterrupted service when moving home for any reason.

Building on initial success, Zain is gearing up for the next phase of its FWA strategy. The operator refreshed its FWA proposition in July 2023, introducing a new set of FWA tiers to appeal to a range of user preferences. Its entry-level 5G Home Basic Plus service plan is targeted at existing 4G FWA users which do not require the full 5G experience. The package comes with a 5G RedCap router, enabling Zain to provide a low-priced 5G FWA service while still offering a 30 per cent improvement in performance and 50 per cent reduction in energy usage compared with its 4G FWA offering.

Zain offers three additional service plans: 5G Home; 5G Home Plus; and 5G Home Premium. These plans vary based on the maximum speeds available, as well as the content subscriptions included. Here, the role for 5G-Advanced is clear: the technology will enable Zain to offer higher-tiered service plans with greater uplink and download data rates. It could also help the operator differentiate plans based on additional characteristics such as latency, thereby driving take-up of its GeForce NOW cloud gaming service.

The improvements 5G-Advanced brings in terms of enhanced capacity will also be important for Zain, considering the technology already accounts for between 25 per cent and 30 per cent of its network traffic in Saudi Arabia. This share is likely to grow further in the next few years as the evolution of 5G drives FWA adoption in new customer segments, solidifying Zain’s position as a global 5G FWA pioneer.