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Is 5G fixed wireless getting ready for its comeback?

One of the leading initial 5G "use cases" is fixed wireless access, whereby a 5G connection would replace a customers' wired home Internet service. To date, there has been plenty of skepticism about whether this kind of service can reach major scale in developed markets like the US – but new developments are giving some analysts a brighter outlook on the space.

"There is a significant pent-up demand for high-speed fixed home broadband across the globe and the need is further accelerated by the pandemic," Counterpoint Research analyst Parv Sharma said in a recent release. "Operators are working closely with the ecosystem players from components and module to infrastructure vendors to roll out 5G networks and CPEs [customer premises equipment] to capitalize on this unprecedented opportunity."

According to Counterpoint, cumulative 5G CPE shipments for FWA (fixed wireless access) will cross the one billion mark by 2030 at a 47% compound annual growth rate over the next 10 years, partly due to a decline in the cost of FWA equipment from a large and growing list of vendors including Zyxel, Casa Systems, Samsung, Coolpad, Huawei, Nokia, Cisco, ZTE and others.

"The recent entry of other component suppliers, such as Unisoc, ASR and MediaTek, with their low-cost 5G CPE designs, would further boost 5G CPE affordability next year. This ecosystem growth, competition and rising scale with potential Communication Service Provider (CSP) subsidies, will catalyze the FWA adoption," added Counterpoint VP of Research Neil Shah.

Similarly, research firm Dell'Oro Group recently reiterated that it expects the global mobile network equipment market to "grow at a healthy pace over the next three years" in part due to a "favorable outlook for FWA."

Verizon is reportedly scheduled to restart its own 5G Home FWA rollout on October 1 thanks to the availability of new equipment from Qualcomm. Verizon's FWA service previously used Qualcomm chipsets initially designed for smartphones, but is now moving forward with silicon and other equipment specifically intended for fixed wireless services.

Verizon has also said that it expects to roughly double the number of markets where it's selling 5G Home to 10 this year, and has maintained an eventual goal of selling the technology to 30 million US households.

Qualcomm isn't the only vendor touting new and improved FWA kit. For example, MediaTek recently announced its new T750 chip for FWA below 6GHz, while ADTRAN released a new version of its MetNet 60GHz CPE. And Casa Systems unveiled its new high-power 5G mmWave CPE.

Moreover, other operators are promising to kickstart their own FWA efforts in the coming months. For example, T-Mobile has said it will use 5G to offer fixed wireless Internet services to almost 10 million households by 2024. T-Mobile networking chief Neville Ray recently described the operator's fixed wireless efforts as becoming "formative" in 2021.

To be clear, FWA has long been a small but notable trend in the wireless industry – particularly in rural areas – considering the simplicity of wirelessly beaming Internet connections into homes and offices compared with the expense of building wired connections into those locations. However, wireless technology has often been unable to keep pace with growing home and office Internet demands; for example, thanks to Netflix and other high-bandwidth applications, the average US Comcast customer now uses a median of 308GB a month.

Verizon's initial launch of its 5G Home FWA service over millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in 2018 was viewed as a potential breakthrough in the ability of wireless technology to meet such traffic demands. But some analysts argued that the economics of Verizon's service – limited by the relatively minuscule coverage areas supported by mmWave transmissions – would inhibit the wide-scale opportunity for 5G FWA.

Now, though, some vendors and operators in the FWA space see a chance to rekindle interest in the offering thanks to improvements in the equipment and technology – including efforts to extend the reach of FWA signals and ease the installation process – potentially coupled with the release of new spectrum bands such as CBRS and C-band.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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