PARTNER FEATURE: In 5G’s first year of commercial adoption in 2019, fixed wireless access (FWA) was launched as the first batch of services on more than 30 5G commercial networks. In particular in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific, FWA has become a standard practice. UK renowned investment banks and consulting firms have released their industry reports, elaborating and highlighting the significance 5G FWA will create for operators, equipment vendors, and industry chain players.

On February 21, 2019, Wang Zhongtao, President, Huawei’s Wireless & Cloud Core Network Marketing and Solution Sales, joined Professor Sally Eaves and Principal Analyst Kyung Mun from Mobile Experts for an in-depth discussion about 5G FWA in London. Will 5G FWA evolve into a game changer or simply be a supplementary option in the home broadband market? Will the spectrum and CPE prices continue to be a big obstacle to the growth of 5G FWA services? Watch the video below to find out the answers.

Groundbreaking Innovation Brings New Opportunities

Why is FWA still required even when wired broadband access is available for the majority of homes to use? This is a question that has been widely discussed. According to Mr. Wang quoting a recent report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), this is inaccurate. There are still more than 800 million households with no broadband access. Moreover, with 75% of fiber-optical broadband concentrated in the US, Japan, South Korea, and China, the majority of households having a broadband connection still heavily rely on the existing copper-line and cable networks. This creates a huge demand for broadband upgrade, and is the exact reason behind the common FWA deployment on the majority of 5G commercial networks.

5G has reinvented FWA by increasing cell capacity multiple times and enabling services that are prohibited with previous generations of mobile network technology. These services include ultra-high speed broadband access (100 Mbps for homes and Gbps for enterprises), 4K video, video upload, and 5G B2B private line. Above all, FWA now can provide a similar performance that was only possible with fiber-optical transmission. More importantly, FWA does not require cable trenches or civil construction in network deployment. This means that operators are able to provide broadband connections in an extremely short period of time, yet with reduced capital expenditure (CAPEX) and simplified processes of number allocation, equipment installation, and operation and maintenance (O&M). As a result, cross-industry innovation can be implemented, bringing new growth opportunities for operators.

Commercial Progress Is Far Beyond Expectations

5G is the fastest developing mobile network technology in terms of commercial popularity. In the second year of commercial adoption, 4G gained only seven million users worldwide. For 5G, this figure is expected to increase enormously to 300 million. Based on a recent report by Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), in the first year of 5G commercial adoption by the end of December, 2019, more than 60 customer-premises equipment (CPE) products had been released into the global market. In comparison to 4G, it took three years to reach a similar scale.

According to Kyung Mun, Principal Analyst of Mobile Experts, since the release of the FWA report by his company in August, 2019, FWA has exceeded expectations in three areas. Firstly, more than 60 operators acquired 5G spectrum and licenses by January 2020. The spectrum for 5G predominantly includes C-band, millimeter wave (mmWave), and 700 MHz. Secondly, the industry chain is developing far quicker compared to 3G and 4G, in terms of both the terminal diversity and price. Lastly, there is still strong demand for both mobile and fixed broadband connections. Overall, these three factors represent the main driving force behind the accelerated FWA development.

5G Huge Capacity Fosters Massive Innovation

Higher spectral bandwidth combined with Massive MIMO and other leading technologies enables 5G cells to provide significantly increased capacity for innovative commercial services of a greater diversity. Kyung Mun believes this high level of 5G network capacity makes innovations possible.

In some networks, operators are able to provide a perceived rate exceeding 500 Mbps to both home and enterprise users and launch 4K video as a value-added service of FWA. In the Middle East, operators started to offer enterprise users 5G B2B private line featuring high reliability and DL-UL symmetry.

This is just the beginning. We have noticed operators developing stronger interest in innovative services. VR + FWA is an ideal combination in the home broadband market. Thanks to improved throughput and latency performance, 5G PC and cloud gaming are becoming a reality. Recognizing the enormous potential of CPE as an ideal portal for smart home, many vendors, including Huawei, have developed a wide category of smart home functions and successfully integrated them onto the CPE. Examples are typically related to home safety, smart appliance, and e-Health.

mmWave or Sub-6 GHz?

Both bands have their own distinctive advantages. mmWave provides a high bandwidth, allowing 5G cells to have up to 100 times higher capacity. This makes it comparable to fiber to the home (FTTH) in terms of speed and throughput. As a result, traffic-hungry services, including 4K video, 8K video, Gigabit access for homes and enterprises, video surveillance, and B2B private lines, can be implemented more efficiently. Furthermore, it does not allow for a large coverage radius and therefore is suited in urban areas where long-distance coverage is not required. Additionally, backhaul resources and power supply are easily available, and poles are easier to obtain for site deployment.

Notably, strong progress has already been achieved in addressing coverage drawbacks. Huawei’s latest macro base stations were used on an Italian trial network. A CPE with a high antenna gain was used, significantly expanding the coverage radius. Provided that the industry’s standard networks and terminals are used, the area with downlink speed exceeding 1 Gbps increased from 26% to 79% on the network. This shows that the improvement is indeed significant.

The sub-6 GHz spectrum, mainly C-band, allows performance to be well balanced between huge throughput and good coverage. This is the advantages over low-band and mmWave resources. In a typical network with a 100 MHz bandwidth, it supports a maximum throughput of above 5 Gbps, and, when combined with outdoor CPEs, extends the coverage radius to more than 5 km. Owing to this level of comprehensive advantages in coverage, capacity, and spectrum availability, C-band is the mostly used spectrum among the 5G commercial networks in urban, suburban, and rural areas all over the world.

Major Challenges Facing FWA Business

Though 5G FWA has been commercially launched on more than 30 commercial networks, the user scale is still small. High CPE prices represent a huge barrier in delivering economic benefits. Indoor coverage as a result of using high-band spectrum remains a large stumbling block to achieving service deployment.

The spectrum of 5G rests on higher bands, for example, C-band and even mmWave, than 3G and 4G, leading to weaker coverage and diffraction capabilities. The solution is not complex, as outdoor CPEs can be used to increase coverage radius by several times while also ensuring better coverage than low-band 3G and 4G. Though outdoor CPEs are already commercially available, the dimensions are still not satisfactory and need to be further reduced to simplify installation.

With regard to high CPE prices, President Wang believes that, with an increasing number of 5G chipsets arriving in the market, the CPE products will be more diversified. According to his forecast, the CPE prices will decrease to below USD 150 on average by the second half of 2020.

Coincidentally, on February 26, 2019 one week later, China Unicom announced the release of the first 5G CPE that uses the Unisoc module. This product supports NSA/SA modes and VoNR services. It will be launched in China in H2 2019, with the price expected to below CNY 1000.

The accelerated advancement of the global 5G industry will resolve all challenges and obstacles, promoting the scaled development of 5G FWA worldwide. FWA is a cross-industry innovative product expected to provide better broadband and ICT services for homes and enterprises in a cost-effective and efficient way, helping deliver technological benefits to all of society.