Fixed wireless access (FWA) is one of the most promising 5G use cases. Why? Because 5G brings considerable performance improvements which can place FWA in direct competition with the main wireline alternatives available such as fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and hybrid fibre-coax (HFC) networks. For operators looking to grow revenue beyond smartphone data, it also represents an incremental opportunity to maximise the value of existing network assets.

While FWA solutions have been available since the late 1990s, they are logically seeing a lot of renewed interest. The official buzz word is wireless fibre (see chart, below, click to enlarge).

Strong demand drivers
The fixed broadband market has been growing in most parts of the world. For instance, in OECD countries, it grew by 21 million connections in 2020. This has been driven by the shift to more activities online and rising requirements in terms of performance. Video streaming, for example, has been one of the most popular and data-intensive use cases, accounting for 58 per cent of global internet traffic in 2020 and 80 per cent when considered together with social networking and gaming accounts. The Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has only strengthened the growth in data consumption and shifted consumer patterns, with home broadband now regularly used for work. This has brought to the fore the importance of robust, high-speed fixed broadband infrastructure and the need to deploy it in a timely and cost-efficient manner, in developed and developing countries.

The result is continuously growing demand for fixed broadband services and a shift away from DSL-based solutions to the benefit of technologies which can deliver the capacity required in the places where it’s required. Namely, to the benefit of fibre, cable and FWA. In OECD countries, DSL subscribers have fallen by 21 per cent over the past five years, while fibre, cable and FWA subscribers grew by 93 per cent, 26 per cent and 64 per cent, respectively. Over the next five years, Ericsson predicts 5G FWA connections are expected to grow to more than 70 million due to a combination of new subscribers in greenfield areas, mainly in developing markets, and subscribers migrating from xDSL, cable and FTTH solutions.

Strategic potential
What justifies the bullish outlook above? For a start, 5G FWA is a reality in several markets worldwide. As of September, 65 operators offered 5G FWA services, while another 19 had announced plans to launch. This compares with 84 operators with live 5G networks.

Overall, we see several strategic use cases for 5G FWA:

  • First-time broadband adoption. In developing countries FWA is being used to drive first-time broadband adoption. The case of Globe Telecom in the Philippines, the first operator in Southeast Asia to launch a commercial 5G FWA service, is a great example. Globe Telecom’s proposition, targeted at the country’s growing urban middle class, aims to build on its 4G FWA success by offering download speeds of up to 100Mb/s and a data allocation of 2TB.
  • Faster speeds in underserved areas. 5G FWA can be used in developed and developing countries as a replacement to copper, to target users looking for faster speeds. The clearest opportunity is likely to be in markets where a significant number of households rely on xDSL products delivering low speeds, where 5G FWA can be positioned as a performance booster, particularly in terms of download speeds.
  • Complementing optical fibre networks. 5G FWA can be used to complement fibre offerings in developed countries for instance by operators looking to expand into new areas to complement their FTTH networks or by mobile-only operators seeking to challenge cable and FTTH broadband providers
  • Enterprise. In the enterprise segment 5G FWA can be used where offices and work spaces tend to be temporary (for example music festivals, sport events, construction sites), to provide fast connectivity in underserved areas or as a back-up option. 5G FWA comes with the embedded security of 5G and saves enterprise customers on premise wiring costs.

Regulatory recognition
Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, governments understand reliable broadband connections have become more important than ever and are investing considerable amounts in programmes aimed at improving digital infrastructure and reducing the access gap. There is a clear role for 5G FWA in these programmes. Perhaps more importantly, it already has regulatory acknowledgement in the European Union (EU), since the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) explicitly note FWA as one of several technologies which will be used to construct very high-capacity networks (VHCNs) in the EU.

Is 5G FWA cost-efficient?
Against this backdrop, the key question is under what conditions 5G FWA can be a cost-effective alternative to wireline technologies in urban, suburban and rural areas.

To identify these conditions, we have developed a unique TCO model and we will be publishing the results in a series of research focusing on three scenarios:

  • 1. An operator with existing 5G services in the area deploys 5G FWA with mmWave spectrum, but with limited sub-6 GHz spectrum available.
  • 2. An operator with existing 5G services in the area deploys 5G FWA solutions with mmWave spectrum and a significant amount of sub-6 GHz spectrum.
  • 3. An ISP deploys a greenfield 5G FWA network.

After surveying the market, it was clear these scenarios are representative of the approaches operators can adopt when looking at fixed broadband deployment. The first two scenarios are relevant to mobile-only operators looking to service new markets, or converged operators aiming to upgrade their networks or complement them to gain market share.

The third scenario is relevant to ISPs looking to expand their networks or switch off their copper networks, and are considering different options including acquiring spectrum to offer 5G FWA services.

The first report providing some market context is now online, here.

Stay tuned for our follow-up research on this topic.

– Federico Agnoletto – senior economist, 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.