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Fixed wireless, LEO satellite broadband best suited for unserved and underserved areas – study

Recent performance data suggests that fixed wireless access (FWA) and low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband services are best suited for areas that are unserved, or underserved, by terrestrial broadband, MoffettNathanson concluded in its analysis of proprietary data from Comlinkdata and its Tutela unit.

That analysis was focused on observations of T-Mobile's Home Broadband (delivered over fixed wireless) and Starlink (SpaceX's LEO-based satellite broadband service). The performance study itself was based on Comlinkdata's network performance data for ISPs, including fixed wireless operators. That includes data from Tutela, a company acquired by Comlinkdata in 2019 with access to a global panel of more than 300 million smartphone users.

The data showed that the median download speed Tutela observed for T-Mobile's Home Broadband service was 20 Mbit/s, while the median download speed observed for Starlink was 35 Mbit/s.

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While both fell short of the 42 Mbit/s median download speed for the top six US cable operators and 41 Mbit/s among the top four ILECs, they "were as good or better than VDSL, and significantly better than DSL," MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett noted in his Q3 2021 report on the broader trends impacting the US broadband industry.

The data also showed that download speeds in the 90th percentile (which Tutela views as generally indicative of the maximum speeds that users would experience with day-to-day applications) reached 46 Mbit/s for T-Mobile Home Broadband and 63 Mbit/s for Starlink.

"These fell well short of comparable measures for cable and fiber, but were as good or better than VDSL, and significantly better than DSL," Moffett wrote.

Download speeds in the 10th percentile (indicative of the "worst case" network connection), were 4 Mbit/s for T-Mobile Home Broadband, and 12 Mbit/s for Starlink. Moffett said Starlink's performance in this category "was surprisingly strong," matching Cable and beating out fiber, while T-Mobile Home Broadband's performance was on par with VDSL.

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Shifting to latency, the median latency for T-Mobile Home Broadband was 42 milliseconds, slightly above Starlink's 36ms – and both below the threshold of 50ms that will cause problems for real-time apps such as VoIP calling, video calls or online gaming, according to Tutela.

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"By and large, the network performance results from Comlinkdata/Tutela support the view that while these services represent significant improvements over alternatives in underserved areas, their competitiveness today versus more robust terrestrial alternatives is more limited," Moffett explained.

The analyst did acknowledge that fixed wireless alternatives will improve, particularly as Verizon starts to introduce C-band spectrum to its 5G Home product.

But Moffett also pointed out that network congestion concerns remain, citing a recent survey from Wave7 Research's Jeff Moore indicating that T-Mobile is proceeding "very cautiously with respect to network loading, in an attempt to limit the number of subscribers per cell, and even per cell sector."

These performance metrics are coming into view in the relative early days of wider use of FWA and LEO-based satellite broadband services.

While T-Mobile is on track to have about 500,000 fixed wireless access subs by the end of 2021, Verizon recently disclosed it added 55,000 FWA subs in Q3 2021, ending the quarter with 150,000.

Starlink, meanwhile, exited beta last month, and, at last check, reportedly had about 90,000 users in a dozen countries.

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.

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