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T-Mobile, Verizon, U.S. Cellular laud 5G fixed wireless

According to some of the biggest companies in the 5G industry, fixed wireless Internet services are growing up – in a big way.

"We've already brought T-Mobile Home Internet access to millions of customers who have been underserved by the competition. But we're just getting started. As we've seen in our first few months together with Sprint, our combined network will continue to unlock benefits for our customers, laying the groundwork to bring 5G to Home Internet soon," said Dow Draper, a former Sprint executive who is now T-Mobile's EVP of emerging products, in a press release.

T-Mobile recently launched a 4G-based fixed wireless access (FWA) service across 20 million US households; on Monday the company expanded that to an additional 130 cities and towns across nine states. (Company officials said the expansion covers "millions" more households but did not provide specifics.)

But next year, T-Mobile said it would launch the 5G version of the service, and by 2027 it said it would cover 50% of all US households with the fixed wireless offering.

The opportunities could be significant.

"Our cable provider constantly struggled to keep Zoom video working (so much so that I accessed audio through my mobile phone not my computer)," wrote consultant Jim Patterson of Patterson Advisory Group in his weekly newsletter. He said he switched to T-Mobile's new 4G fixed wireless service and is now supporting streaming on TVs, smartphones and laptops with 50-70Mbit/s speeds.

And he noted T-Mobile could soon sweeten the service with its new streaming TV package, offering combined mobile, TV and fixed Internet services at a discounted price.

"Could Magenta [which is T-Mobile's corporate color] be using the same bundle tool against cable that Time Warner, Cox and Cablevision effectively used against the telcos 15 years ago?" he wrote. "Who will get there first – cable with attractive family plan pricing, or T-Mobile with 2.5GHz integrated into 200-300 million POPs [points of presence, a measurement of population]? That may be one of the most important questions for 2021."

Verizon's 5G FWA gets mixed reception

Verizon, for its part, is also pursuing the FWA business via 4G and 5G. The company launched its 5G offering in its millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum in 2018, but in recent months it has begun expanding its coverage area thanks to the addition of new chipsets that support more powerful customer premises equipment (CPE). The company's CEO recently described 5G Home as a "transformative business."

However, tests of the newly updated service appear mixed. For example, PCMag reported that Verizon is only offering 5G Home to a small number of customers in Chicago and Minneapolis in range of its transmitters, a situation that does not appear to reflect the wider coverage areas presumably supported by Qualcomm's new chipsets for the operator's CPE.

However, Mike Thelander of Signals Research Group said he recently tested the service in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area of Minnesota and found that Verizon was able to deliver between 1 and 2 Gbit/s using around 400MHz of mmWave spectrum across distances of around 1 km, including in both line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight configurations.

"The high-power CPE is a huge gamechanger," Thelander wrote on LinkedIn.

Off the beaten path

Indeed, the broader coverage area supported by more powerful fixed 5G services could also have implications for rural markets. For example, U.S. Cellular CEO Laurent Therivel pointed out that the operator recently achieved 100Mbit/s speeds over a mmWave connection at distances up to 5 km with partners Ericsson and Qualcomm.

"That speaks pretty highly for the kinds of services that we're going to be able to provide to rural North America," he said during his company's quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. He said the operator would begin wider testing of the service in the first quarter of next year, though he did not commit to a broad commercial rollout of the technology.

U.S. Cellular isn't alone in looking at 5G in rural areas for fixed Internet services. For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on WiConnect Wireless, a fixed wireless Internet provider in southwestern Wisconsin that counts nine employees serving 5G fixed wireless Internet connections to 1,400 rural households in seven counties.

WiConnect's David Bangert told the publication that the company's transmission sites often sit atop grain silos and cost around $20,000 apiece, connecting around 25 homes each. He said the company can provide speeds of around 25 Mbit/s for $79 to $99 a month.

Will such investments into 5G fixed wireless technologies affect existing, wired Internet service providers? Some don't think so.

"The speeds that they're talking about is not something that's worrying us, but we would never count them out," Cable One CEO Julia Laulis said of T-Mobile's fixed wireless offerings, when questioned on the topic during her company's quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "We like to think that we have a competitive mindset in that our reliable products and our above-average service will serve us well."

However, it's worth noting that Cable One recently acquired stakes in two rural fixed wireless Internet providers: 40% in Wisper and less than 10% in NextLink.

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

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