Verizon launched its pre-standard 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) service in four US cities in October 2018. Even though FWA is not a new concept (globally more than 5 per cent of the fixed connections are already FWA or some sort of wireless-based technology), this was an important “first”. 5G technology brings lower latencies and higher capacities, making it much more suitable for FWA as a way to provide real high-speed broadband.

Nevertheless, this launch was more than a year ago and that is a considerable amount of time in telecoms, especially in the middle of 5G fever. So, what’s happened with 5G FWA since?

Geography of FWA
The US came into the forefront 5G FWA and has just kept its leading position for two main reasons:

  • First, the FCC boosted the US market by making available a significant amount of 5G-suitable spectrum (in mmWave bands) in the space of 15 months, a remarkably short period of time compared with other markets.
  • Second, US incumbents typically have less fibre in the ground than other mature markets. OECD figures place the number of fibre broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants in the US much lower than the global average, or most of Europe, South Korea and Japan. This makes FWA a potentially more efficient, cheaper and faster solution than FTTx for incumbents to compete against cable in the US. In South Korea, Japan or Europe, where FTTx is the dominant solution, 5G FWA is less compelling other than as a complement to coverage in selective scenarios.

Providing home broadband services with 5G FWA is an opportunity for several European challenger operators to compete in new markets without capex-intensive fibre deployments. These are mobile-only players with a more limited fixed broadband presence that can extend their coverage and potentially disrupt the market with their pricing. Hutchinson UK (Three) and Telefonica Germany are both well-positioned for 5G FWA, while Digi and Iliad could also become disruptors with competitive pricing and newly acquired 5G spectrum licences.

CPE, the new gateway to the homes
FWA requires different form factors and capabilities to traditional routers and customer premise equipment (CPE). Some FWA solutions will include an external antenna to improve speeds and connectivity, while others may be a single indoor, self-contained router. This area has seen a significant amount of development in the past year, as 5G trials and deployments have created demand and highlighted challenges, especially when operating with mmWave frequencies. Initially, operators had a limited number of CPE options to reach homes with 5G FWA, but there is a now a growing variety of products in the market and the number of OEMs offering FWA kit will soon reach 40, covering both indoor and outdoor CPE.

Infrastructure vendors and device manufacturers are all working on their own solutions. A  wide-range of players including Inseego, Oppo, Nokia, Samsung, Sharp and Sierra Wireless have either already launched or started to develop their own devices, and most of them will start supporting FWA deployments from 2020 at the latest.

These new CPEs will offer a number of advances over early models. Some are enabling download rates of up to 5Gb/s, while stronger router signals should also boost coverage in the customer’s home. Many of these are also lightweight and, in some cases, even portable, allowing more flexible deployments and so access the 5G network more freely. Furthermore, the newest CPE’s which Verizon plans to launch in 2020 are equipped with many more features including Wi-Fi 6 capabilities, Amazon Alexa, Bluetooth playback and parental controls. With these advanced functions, 5G CPEs evolve into a new home gateway and help network operators to deliver triple-play home internet to customers, including fibre-like high-speed data, television and phone services in a high-performance single-box solution.

Crucially for both operator economics and consumer adoption, the new Verizon gateway (and numerous others) will be self-install. Some operators are also providing a smartphone app with the CPE to help customers find the optimal location for the equipment in their homes. The Plug and Play installation saves time for the customer and should help to drive further adoption of 5G FWA.

Future of 5G FWA
In the first year of 5G FWA, the technology was still generally in a trial mode, reaching just a small number of customers. The new CPE models are Wi-Fi 6 capable, a feature that is especially important for enterprise customers. Wi-Fi 6 advanced features such as higher data rates; lower latency; increased capacity and improved power efficiency will provide a background for many new use cases. As a result of these new capabilities, enterprise adoption is an additional factor to drive FWA adoption.

Consumer adoption is also expected to increase further during the next year, driven by new features, self-install capabilities and lower prices. The number of available devices and 5G spectrum are both expected to grow significantly. The expected appearance of the budget CPEs during 2020 will also boost penetration in less mature markets, such as Romania or South Africa.

Overall, 5G FWA has evolved significantly since it launched, and there will be numerous new developments around devices and network capabilities by time we reach the second anniversary of the launch of 5G’s wireless broadband. 5G FWA has both the opportunity to provide home hubs, integrate many new functions into one box and also to provide advanced connectivity for enterprises, enabling brand new applications.

Emanuel Kolta – senior analyst, Consultancy, Strategy, GSMA Intelligence

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.