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Shentel launches 5G-ready fixed wireless with Nokia

Shentel's fixed wireless ambitions crystalized this week with the launch of the company's new "Beam Internet" offering. The fixed wireless Internet service will cover 15,000 households by the end of the year with Nokia's 4G LTE Advanced Massive MIMO equipment running in the operator's 2.5GHz holdings.

"Both our RAN [radio access network] and our Evolved Packet Core are 5G-ready," Dan Meenan, Shentel's VP of wireless network development, wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. "Specifically, once we are comfortable with 5G customer premise equipment options, we can immediately upgrade our network to support 5G non-standalone (5G NSA) via simple software upgrades."

The launch caps roughly a year of work by Shentel, which announced in 2019 it would spend $17 million for around 90MHz of spectrum licenses in the 2.5GHz band covering a total of 1 million POPs (points of presence, which is a common measurement of wireless coverage) across Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio in order to launch a fixed wireless Internet service. The operator said it is now commercially offering the service under its Beam Internet brand starting at $60 per month for 25 Mbit/s download speeds without any usage caps. The company said supported speeds range up to 100 Mbit/s downloads.

However, unlike some other fixed wireless services, Shentel requires that technicians install receivers on the outside of customers' homes, for a $100 fee.

Shentel's Meenan said the company's Beam service leverages Nokia's Massive MIMO, carrier aggregation and beam steering technologies, and uses customer premise equipment from South Korea's Seowon Intech.

Meenan said Shentel plans to grow the service "exponentially" over the coming years, potentially via the $16 million it recently spent on CBRS spectrum licenses. "Our plans for CBRS spectrum are not yet finalized," Meenan explained. "However, we believe this midband spectrum is ideally suited for fixed wireless. Further, this CBRS spectrum complements current operating Shentel markets, and we will be able to leverage existing Shentel infrastructure assets."

Shentel is not the only operator using fixed wireless technologies. Other operators investing in similar efforts range from T-Mobile to Cable One to AT&T. Indeed, Verizon just announced it now offers 4G LTE fixed wireless services across fully 48 US states, though the company declined to say how many actual potential customers it covers.

There are a number of reasons that interest is growing in fixed wireless Internet services – perhaps, most importantly, the technology is dramatically cheaper to install than wired and fiber networks. For example, Shentel's Meenan said Beam Internet's 2.5GHz cell towers can connect to customers up to five miles away, depending on the trees and other obstacles that may be in the way.

Not surprisingly, fixed wireless is reportedly receiving renewed interest from investors, partly due to an increase in government financing, improved technologies and a growing trove of spectrum options, according economist Jeff Johnston at CoBank Knowledge Exchange, a unit of rural broadband lender CoBank.

"WISPs [wireless Internet service providers] have seldom come up as attractive acquisition targets because they're vulnerable to fiber over-builders that can essentially wipe out a WISP's entire business," Johnston wrote in a recent report. "WISPs have historically used off-the-shelf Wi-Fi gear that operates on unlicensed spectrum. While this is better than nothing, it's no match for a fiber network that offers faster speeds and a much more reliable connection. Additionally, WISP balance sheets tend to be weak and their cash flows have not been overly reliable."

But these factors are beginning to change, he argued.

"We've been hearing about investor interest in WISPs," Johnston wrote. "We do think fixed wireless will play a larger role in broadband networks as operators look for cost-effective ways to deploy coverage in high-cost areas."

Finally, to be clear, Shentel's Beam Internet service will not be impacted by the potential sale of Shentel's mobile phone business to T-Mobile. Meenan said the spectrum, equipment and other assets supporting Beam Internet won't be included in that proposed transaction.

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

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