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Addressing Current Connectivity Challenges by Accelerating the Deployment of Fixed Wireless Broadband Solutions

Unprecedented growth in demand due to the impacts of the coronavirus
During COVID-19, working and studying from home has resulted in unprecedented growth in global internet traffic over a short period of time. While most data networks see annual growth of 30 to 45 percent, in some countries there have been increases of up to 40 percent from previous data usage levels in a few weeks. Although it is too early to determine the impact on long term demand, the new normal may be much higher demand for bandwidth than previous levels. The key questions for telecommunications operators are what is the new “day to day” demand, does that vary between days of the week and when are the new peaks?

We are also seeing unprecedented growth in latency-sensitive applications during business hours with reportedly some 300 percent growth in teleconferencing apps in the USA (e.g., Zoom, Skype) and 400 percent growth in gaming (with children being at home!). In Thailand, dtac reported an 828 per cent rise in data traffic from Zoom and a 215 per cent spike on Skype video conferencing apps between 1 January and 19 March 2020. This has meant that dtac has been optimising network capacity to keep up with traffic spikes due to an increasingly homebound workforce.

Increasingly too, commerce and shopping is going online with large increases across most product categories.

While some short term approaches are possible, for example, Netflix, YouTube and Amazon are restricting video streaming quality globally to reduce network congestion, or providing additional temporary spectrum like in the USA, better solutions exist. In particular, the rapid deployment of 4G/5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services to (i) provide coverage where the fixed network is non-existent and (ii) to quickly meet this increased demand, should be examined by operators, industry regulators and Governments.

4G/5G FWA solutions provide an excellent solution
Instead of short term approaches, the deployment of 4G/5G FWA services provides more comprehensive fibre-like solutions. They offer a unique value proposition including high speed broadband, low-latency, zero-touch, plug-and-play, quick delivery, flexible tariffs, and affordability. FWA can effectively support the needs of working from home, remote education, telemedicine, and where necessary support health services which has been established for coronavirus spread prevention and treatment of patients. They can immediately address societal issues including providing connectivity, helping generate incomes and reduce societal isolation, etc.

FWA infrastructure is not just a short term fix and should be considered as an integral part of each country’s digital evolution and digital infrastructure as defined by the ITU and now form part of technology neutral national broadband deployments in global markets.

COVID-19 FWA Use Case Studies
Immediate solutions: In the short term, there a number of case studies coming out of China on how 5G FWA was used to help quickly deploy necessary wireless broadband infrastructure including the deployment of 5G network at the Wuhan Leishenshan Temporary Hospital. This was done within 24 hours and provided high-speed 200 Mbps plus services with stable Wi-Fi coverage for 25,000 users involved in telemedicine, health records, monitoring and related fields.

In Italy and Germany, hospitals dealing with the coronavirus have had to expand their Internet bandwidth by 100 percent, develop new broadband and Wi-Fi connections. They had to acquire more equipment as demand for fixed lines increased by 90 percent and up to 40 percent more on mobile services. The need for improved connectivity is in part due to the need support the pre-triage tents now outside hospitals in Italy.

Short to medium term solutions: Given the increased traffic from work from home and study at home, mobile operators are looking to quickly augment coverage and capacity over cities and urban areas which may be subject to social distancing requirement. This has been the case in Italy where FWA networks have provided to be very resilient even with traffic increases of more than 50 percent. Furthermore, in Thailand, AIS Thailand and Truemove have launched the FWA package, which supports such activity from home. While in Egypt mobile operators have offered FWA packages during the coronavirus epidemic, with significant discounts of up to 50 percent for consumers.

Going forward and the acceleration of FWA deployments
Going forward, investment in and the early rollout of FWA services (i) by supporting the Government’s health response to fighting the coronavirus, (ii) meets societal needs in the short to medium term during the COVID-19 crisis by helping to reduce the current pressures on existing telecommunications networks which arise from working and studying from home which were often not dimensioned for such traffic, and (iii) providing mobile operators with considerable commercial returns in the longer term from investing in FWA networks.

The key thing to note commercially is that FWA services provide high speed ‘FTTx-like’ affordable connectivity sought by businesses – large and small, homeowners and consumers at their preferred locations during the current pandemic period but also into the future.

They are both an affordable substitute and a complement to the deployment of fixed FTTx services. Certainly, FWA can play an important role in the rapid achievement of the Government policy objectives of universal coverage (i.e., action to bridge the ‘digital divide’ may need to be accelerated as a result of country coronavirus responses) and create more competitive broadband markets going forward. Such commercial returns are sustainable given the sharing the cost of provisioning of broadband access through the use of wireless 4G and/or 5G technologies.

— Scott Minehane is telecommunications regulatory consultant based in Melbourne who has acted as an ITU expert for a number of projects in the Asia-Pacific.

This content is sponsored by Huawei.

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