DIY 5G: In the Future, You Might Install Your Own Cell Tower
There's a debate raging in the fixed wireless market, and it boils down to one simple question: Are regular people smart enough to install their own receivers?
It's a question with potentially millions of dollars hanging in the balance. After all, if consumers are smart enough to install their own receivers (which are essentially mini cell towers that can provide a home or office with WiFi coverage), providers won't have to spend the money to send out a professional technician to do it for them.
Of course, on the flip side, if consumers don't do the installation right, their service might be crappy as a result. In which case they'll call their provider to complain, thus forcing the provider to pay for a customer service representative to field the complaint at the very least -- and potentially to pay for a technician to do the installation anyway, in the worst case.
Despite that risk, some fixed wireless providers are inching toward a scenario that will test their customers' DIY (do it yourself) capabilities.
An age-old question
This isn't the first time that telecom providers have asked their customers to handle some kind of installation. Some cable companies, for example, offer a DIY option for customers who want to install their gateways or set-top boxes. And AT&T is testing a self-install option for its DirecTV Now TV service called Osprey. But building momentum behind 5G and other advanced wireless technologies is pushing some players in the market to find ways to make the fixed wireless installation process as simple and easy -- and as profitable -- as possible. After all, if a provider could cut out the $200-$400 cost of sending in a professional technician to handle the installation, that's some serious cost savings on a service plan of $50 per month.
The self-install question also sits at the heart of the Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) use case for 5G. FWA is basically where a 5G provider beams a signal to a stationary receiver at a home or office to provide Internet services to that location. Unlike a smartphone, the receiver doesn't move, and as a result, providers can often tune their networks to provide faster and more reliable speeds to that receiver than they could to a device that moves around, like a smartphone. With 5G speeds, FWA becomes a viable option against some wired Internet providers.
And the upshot with fixed wireless is that providers can sidestep the thousands of dollars it might cost to route a wire to that home or office. In rural areas, fixed wireless may represent the only economical way to connect locations to the Internet, and in urban areas, it may represent an opportunity for a new provider to challenge incumbent wired Internet providers. That's exactly what Verizon, Starry, Common Networks and others are using fixed wireless for in urban areas.
Self-install gains ground
At a recent investor event, Verizon's CFO Matt Ellis said that, at some point in the future, the carrier hopes that more than half of its 5G Home customers will install their own equipment. That's noteworthy considering Verizon initially launched its 5G Home service touting "white glove" installations that would not only include a technician adding a receiver on the inside or outside of customers' locations but also setting up their WiFi.
"Part of what we have to do is we have to change mindsets, right? Because everyone has been used to when you want broadband installed or change broadband provider, you call up and somebody in a truck comes around and does that for you," Ellis said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. "So we've conditioned the consumer base that's what to expect. And so we'll work through reconditioning people that, no, this is something you could do yourself because you're not digging up the front yard and putting wires in the house... There'll be a little transition there, but certainly, we believe that self-install will become the way of the future."
Verizon launched its 5G Home service in October in parts of four cities, providing speeds of at least 300Mbit/s for $50 per month for its mobile customers or $70 per month to non-Verizon customers. Verizon has said it plans to expand its fixed wireless service to additional cities, but executives recently appeared to backtrack on plans to eventually expand the offering to 30 million US households. Verizon currently uses its 5GTF standard for its 5G Home service but plans to transition to 3GPP equipment later this year.
Verizon isn't alone in looking at a self-install option. A representative from startup Starry -- which is this year building out fixed wireless offerings using an iteration of 802.11ax in more than a dozen US cities -- said that the company is also angling toward a self-install model. She said Starry currently conducts all of its installations via professional technicians but is looking to transition some or all of those to self-installation. She cautioned though that the experience must be "positive and seamless" for the customer, even if they're not a tinkerer.
Meantime, AT&T is treading on both sides of the issue. Its consumer-focused fixed wireless offering, which is available in a handful of US states, relies primarily on professional installation. However, in the company's business organization, AT&T is selling a self-install option nationwide that simply involves customers putting plugging in a modem inside the location where they want services. AT&T uses LTE for its current fixed wireless service.
T-Mobile, for its part, offered a clear look at how it would roll out a major fixed wireless offering if the company receives federal sign off on its proposed merger with Sprint. T-Mobile said that thanks to Sprint's 2.5GHz spectrum and 5G, it would be able to provide in-home Internet services to more than half of all US zip codes, and would do so using a self-install model that would pair a book-sized modem with a smartphone app. The app would tell customers where to put the modem in their home to receive the best connection.
"Imagine our In Home 'broadband in a box' -- in the form of a plug-and-use router," wrote T-Mobile CEO John Legere of the fixed wireless offering. "We will ship you a New T-Mobile In Home Router. You self-install using a mobile app. What? Is this real life? Yep. We're going to save consumers time, costs, and hours of frustration around the in-home installation process. Need help? No problem. We've got you covered there too. In-home broadband technical expertise will be fully integrated with our award-winning Team of Experts."
Adherents to professional installations
Rise Broadband, the nation's largest privately held fixed wireless provider with around 150,000 customers, sits on exactly the other side of the equation. "We have experimented, several years ago, with self install, with 2.5GHz," said Co-Founder and Chief Development Officer Jeff Kohler. He said the company found though that customers' download speeds were significantly impacted since the signal had to travel through the building. "We no longer do that program."
"Outdoor professional installations is clearly the better choice," he said. "I don't see any of that changing in our near future."
Rise uses a range of transmission technologies including LTE for its fixed wireless service.
Meanwhile, U.S. Cellular is coming at the topic from a different direction. The company last year launched a fixed wireless service on its LTE network that connects to a stationary router inside customers' homes, but company executives said earlier this year that U.S. Cellular is now testing a professional installation scenario that would put a receiver on the outside of customers' homes.
"We are in the process of actually doing field testing around external-mount antennas, which make it actually improve coverage, improve speed and makes it truly much more of a fixed wireless application," CEO Ken Meyers said during the company's quarterly earnings conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. "We'll be continuing those field-installation trials over the next couple of months."
Assessing the opportunity
Not surprisingly, some vendors are working to address this situation. NetComm, for example, used the recent Mobile World Congress trade show to announce its new self-install product. NetComm is a major fixed wireless equipment supplier to the likes of NBN in Australia and AT&T in the US, and Casa Systems just last month inked a $115 million agreement to acquire NetComm.
NetComm's self-installation options span the gamut. In the company's self-install kit is a smartphone app that tells customers what they need to do and where they need to put equipment for the best reception, as well as a desktop-stationed router and a window-mounted router. And if those don't work, the kit also includes a wall-mounted and rooftop-mounted receiver for customers to install on the outside of their location.
So what's the size of the opportunity here? According to a 2017 study from the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association, there were more than 2,000 fixed wireless providers in the US serving nearly 4 million customers. But that was before the availability of 5G and the launch of new players like Starry.