COVID-19 sparks fixed wireless rollouts

With an influx of additional spectrum and technological enhancements, city managers, school districts and others are increasingly turning to fixed wireless technologies to meet their pandemic-generated connectivity needs.

For example:

  • According to local reports, Mercury Wireless will install ten cell towers for an LTE fixed wireless service, providing speeds up to 100Mbit/s, in rural Indiana using government money.
  • Officials in McAllen, Texas, turned to Frontera to build a fixed wireless network using CBRS spectrum for K-12 students that needed Internet connectivity when their school district decided to institute remote learning in August.
  • The Patterson Unified School District in Patterson, California, teamed with Motorola Solutions for a private wireless LTE network in CBRS spectrum in the event schooling goes online.
  • Vermont officials said they will funnel government money to Wireless Partners to build five new fixed wireless cell sites to provide 25Mbit/s download services under the Trailrunner Wireless brand to residents in a rural corner of the state.
  • Cable company Midco worked with North Dakota school officials to provide free Internet service via fixed wireless technologies to families who were without service due to COVID-19.
  • Aristotle Unified Communications said it would deploy fixed wireless services in rural Arkansas with government funding to deliver speeds up to 25Mbit/s.
  • Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced an initiative to deliver six months of free Internet access to residents in four public housing communities in partnership with Microsoft and fixed wireless provider Starry.
  • Triad Wireless said it expanded its fixed wireless Internet offerings in Arizona due to the pandemic.
  • And the Utah Education & Telehealth Network (UETN) in Salt Lake City, Utah, announced it would work with TLC Solutions and Quortus to build a private wireless LTE network for online learning throughout the state.

UETN CTO Jim Stewart told Light Reading the effort would eventually cover around 100 basestations from CommScope and Baicells running in the CBRS spectrum band, leveraging roughly $800,000 in government funding to connect around 1,000 students to the Internet.

"This can actually be used now," Stewart said of fixed wireless technologies. "It's certainly doable. We just haven't done it before."

"I don't want to be talking about it anymore," he added. "I just want to do it."

A 'telecom growth opportunity'

Stewart isn't alone. Ericsson reports in its third "fixed wireless handbook" that up to 50% of the world's population is still waiting for reliable broadband access. "This large number of underserved households represents a profitable fixed wireless access (FWA) growth opportunity for current 3GPP operators – and our recent studies show fixed wireless access investments typically have a payback time of less than two years," the company wrote.

"FWA could be the best growth opportunity in telecoms right now," wrote Ericsson's John Yazlle, head of the company's fixed wireless access business.

Already some operators and vendors are showing signs of progress. For example, fixed wireless equipment vendor Cambium Networks said it expects record revenues of $73 million in the third quarter, above its previous expectations of $64-$67 million. "The increased outlook reflects better than anticipated demand for both fixed wireless broadband products and cloud powered enterprise Wi-Fi solutions," the company said.

Separately, fixed wireless Internet provider GeoLinks announced it acquired fixed wireless infrastructure and spectrum licenses from TPx Communications (TPx). "The acquisition will enable GeoLinks and its partners to leverage its proprietary ClearFiber fixed wireless technology to provision enterprise-grade Internet for businesses and anchor institutions across the fastest growing fixed wireless network in the Western United States," the company said.

And this all doesn't even include the dramatic fixed wireless expansions announced recently by T-Mobile and Verizon. T-Mobile, for its part, said it is "massively expanding" its LTE fixed wireless service to an additional 20 million households in parts of 450 cities and towns. Verizon too said it would expand its own fixed wireless service to cover parts of 48 states.

"While we're admittedly skeptical that fixed wireless will be a material competitor in metro areas with ample high-speed broadband access, the rural areas may become a battleground in the coming years as T-Mobile makes a push and as the FCC divides up ~$20B of federal funding to participants in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction," wrote the financial analysts at Wells Fargo in a recent note to investors. "The 'digital divide' is one of the few areas that politicians on both sides of the aisle want to address – and incumbents like AT&T that serve many of these areas could certainly be at risk."

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

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