Nextlink CEO Bill Baker says new technologies and capabilities are enabling rural-focused fixed wireless service providers to 'edge-in' and hit pockets of urban markets that aren't well covered by wireline broadband.

Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor

March 27, 2024

5 Min Read
Fixed Wireless Access mobile antenna
(Source: Wirestock Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

For rural operators, fixed wireless access (FWA) technologies have served well to "edge-out" and deliver services to areas that can't be reached by cable and fiber networks cost-effectively.

But thanks to the beneficial economics of FWA paired with some of the capabilities packed into the latest generation of equipment, those operators are also looking to "edge-in" and bring wireless broadband to pockets of urban markets that aren't adequately covered by wireline networks, said Bill Baker, CEO of Nextlink Internet, a provider of wireline and wireless broadband in parts of eight states.

FWA rollout costs are low, and deployments of the customer premises equipment (CPE) are driven on a success-based model, Baker explained this week during a "LiveLearning" webinar focused on FWA technologies and trends hosted by Light Reading in conjunction with SCTE.

Unlike fiber buildouts, FWA deployments into such markets "don't need 30 to 40% market share for it to make sense financially. They need 2%, 1.5%," Baker said. "It's a totally different ballgame economically on the fixed wireless side."

Targeting urban and suburban areas

That possibility could place some rural-focused operators in urban areas that are being targeted with FWA by mobile network operators such as Verizon, T-Mobile and, more recently, AT&T.

FWA is also being deployed in some suburban areas using mesh networks that hop from tower-to-house and house-to-house, said Jack Burton, principal at Broadband Success Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in technical due diligence for service providers and investors.

That setup also enables the service providers to secure backup connections and tap into multiple paths to deliver services.

Though edge-ins have become an option, Midco is using FWA to edge-out its fiber and cable networks in a targeted fashion, said Justin TerWee, network architect at the company. Midco tends to have a relatively short construction season due to the climate in the areas it serves in parts of states such as Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

"We'll stop [the wireline build] and put up fixed wireless to get to that next bunch of customers online," TerWee said.

FWA benefits and obstacles

The biggest benefits of FWA are the much lower capital costs when compared to building fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) and hybrid fiber/coax (HFC) networks and the use of a success-based deployment model, Burton said. Using such a model, the operator only connects subscribers and deploys CPE when customers sign up for service. 

Deployments are faster, too. Baker said it's not unusual for a fiber network build to take a year to come online when permitting is factored in. But an FWA deployment, especially on a leased tower, can typically go live "in a matter of weeks," he said.

With far fewer permitting requirements and less need to carve out rights-of-way – an issue most fiber builds face – FWA enables a "regulatory bypass" of sorts, agreed Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam, an operator of fixed wireless and wireline-based broadband services in parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. "Fixed wireless goes right around it," he said.

Larsen said the growth in access to unlicensed spectrum, particularly in the 6GHz band, is also easing deployments and driving better service performance. And Baker agreed that access to unlicensed spectrum is helping to open up options.

"It used to be a really crowded beach out there. It was hard to lay down a towel sometimes," Baker said. "Now, there's so much spectrum availability – that has sort of been an obstacle that's been cleared."

But terrain continues to be one of FWA's biggest obstacles. Obtaining proper line-of-sight in mountainous and forested areas is a variable that all FWA service providers must contend with, Burton said.

Baker noted that FWA operators are getting better at handling tough terrain. He said every "savvy" FWA operator taps into detailed 3D Lidar (light detection and ranging) maps and software tools to resolve those issues.

"We literally know down to the square foot in terms of the optical location" to deploy equipment, Baker said. "The technicians are artists in the fixed wireless space."

FWA is 'doing the job'

Larsen sees an even bigger obstacle: the perception that FWA is an "inferior" product when compared to FTTP or HFC.

"Fixed wireless is more than capable of meeting the needs of 99% of people," Larsen said, noting that a sliver of the population actually needs symmetrical gigabit-level speeds and that even older-generation FWA technology is still capable of delivering 100 Mbit/s down and 20 Mbit/s upstream. "It's doing the job. And in a lot of places it's now doing the job better than cable is," he added.

That said, the use of 6GHz spectrum will put companies such as Vistabeam on a path to deliver about 1 Gbit/s downstream and in the neighborhood of 500 Mbit/s to 600 Mbit/s in the upstream, Larson pointed out.

Meanwhile, millimeter wave spectrum helps to put FWA in speed competition with HFC and fiber.

Baker said billboard-level speeds and feeds aren't what's driving FWA's recent success, particularly in urban markets, anyway. FWA is succeeding there, he said, "because it meets the needs of the customer and, quite frankly, people can save $20, $30, $40 in some instances."

With mobile and wireless becoming more important to cable operators, SCTE is also expanding into those areas. Paul Rodrigues, SCTE's director of field education, noted that the organization has recently developed a new course focused on FWA with an emphasis on CBRS spectrum, along with a "Mobile Essentials" course covering areas such as small cells, macro cells and cellular backhaul.

About the Author(s)

Jeff Baumgartner

Senior Editor, Light Reading

Jeff Baumgartner is a Senior Editor for Light Reading and is responsible for the day-to-day news coverage and analysis of the cable and video sectors. Follow him on X and LinkedIn.

Baumgartner also served as Site Editor for Light Reading Cable from 2007-2013. In between his two stints at Light Reading, he led tech coverage for Multichannel News and was a regular contributor to Broadcasting + Cable. Baumgartner was named to the 2018 class of the Cable TV Pioneers.

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