Fixed wireless access is having a moment. As operators worldwide look to connect enterprises and residential customers that are expensive to reach with traditional wireline access technologies, wireless is back in fashion as a fast and efficient way to hook up customers.
In mature economies, even avowedly “fiber first” operators see value in the technology. In the US, for example, Google Fiber has just announced it will acquire wireless ISP WebPass to accelerate growth of its connected buildings footprint. (See Google Fiber Buys Webpass in Wireless Play.)
Also in the US, the first applications of 5G mmWave technology are targeting fixed access. Both AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) have announced plans for field trials in 2016, with Verizon stating that it hopes to be able to launch commercial service in 2017.
Away from the headlines, many other operators are involved in strategic re-evaluations of fixed wireless access technologies. In pretty much all cases, the technology is viewed as a way to help them quickly acquire new customers and inject growth into maturing wireline or, in some cases, mobile businesses. There is quite clearly unmet demand for broadband in some markets where people want connectivity, but simply can't get it at reasonable prices. And if you're an operator that wants to expand and compete "out of region" against wireline incumbents, wireless is a potentially attractive technical solution for the last mile.
In developing, growth economies, the technology can have an even greater impact. Here the challenge is that relatively few customers are connected to true broadband access. The ITU reports that the rate of growth in fixed broadband slowed to just 7% annually over the past three years, and that by the end of 2015 only 46% of households globally had Internet connections. In developing and least developed countries, the figures were 34% and 7%, respectively. Mobile has surged, of course, but dedicated in-home broadband access is generally more reliable and performs better. One example of this is Globe Telecom Inc. in the Philippines, which has used fixed wireless to supplement DSL and support its push into residential broadband. The operator reported that fixed wireless subscribers were up 39% in the first quarter of 2016.
This is not the first time fixed wireless has hit the headlines -- remember LMDS? Or high-power WiFi? Or fixed WiMax? -- and, it's probably fair to say, the technology hasn't truly taken hold at scale.
There are two things that could make it different this time. The first is better technology at lower prices. In some cases, it is simply the scale economies of LTE (repurposed for fixed access) that help the business case. In others, it is product with the ability to support non- and near-line-of-sight operation using MIMO and beamforming, made possible due to higher-performance baseband silicon and the ability to integrate more RF chains and antenna elements using low-cost hardware.
The second factor is that there is now simply far more demand for Internet worldwide. Connectivity is now so fundamental to modern life that everyone who wants it should have it.
This blog is sponsored by Huawei.
— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading