Fixed wireless access is one of the fastest growing 5G services, but uptake could pose capacity challenges.
FWA in the spotlight as “rising star" of 5G
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is one of the strongest growing 5G services around the world and many are eager to point to it as one of the first successful 5G use cases. But in the longer term, capacity constraints could pose challenges for fixed wireless services.
According to Ericsson’s latest Mobility Report published in November 2022, FWA connections are expected to reach 300 million by 2028 and nearly 80% of these will be 5G. FWA connections will total 100 million at the end of this year, most of which are 4G, according to the report.
While the number of fixed connections looks small compared to total 5G subscriptions, which are forecast to be more than 5 billion by 2028, the Swedish supplier called FWA “the rising star of 5G” for its steady “commercial success”.
Ericsson anticipates an annual growth rate of 19% for FWA connections over the next five years and increased its FWA forecast to reflect “accelerated FWA plans in India” and growth in emerging markets. In the last twelve months, the number of operators offering 5G FWA services increased from 57 to 88 (out of a total 310 surveyed) while about 40% of 5G FWA service launches were in emerging markets.
In India, Reliance Jio revealed plans in August to connect 100 million households with 5G FWA, which is one third of the country’s total number of households. This ambitious target has super-charged the 5G FWA market and raised expectations for economies of scale to lower customer premise equipment (CPE) costs, making the broadband services more affordable especially in less developed markets.
The US has also been a hotbed of FWA activity. ABI Research credits US operators for driving early 5G FWA take-up due in part to their deployments in C-band spectrum and access to millimeter wave spectrum.
For example, T-Mobile has 2.1 million High Speed Internet customers as of the end of September after adding a “record” 587,000 in the third quarter. The operator wields its 5G FWA service as a broadband alternative to compete directly with cable operators. Meanwhile, Verizon has 1 million 5G FWA customers and aims to add 4 to 5 million by the end of 2025.
Enough capacity for mobile and fixed 5G?
ABI views FWA in the near term as a way for operators to use excess 5G capacity to grow service revenue while their 5G mobile customer base is relatively small. However, the analyst firm cautions that at some point many operators could run into capacity limits as they add more 5G mobile subscribers.
Fei Liu, 5G and Mobile Network Infrastructure Industry Analyst at ABI Research, said that “a FWA user can consume 40x more network resources than a mobile user … In the long term, 5G FWA depends on sufficient network capacity and spectrum and the optimization of network resources”, she said.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg recently dismissed such capacity concerns. Speaking at the UBS Global TMT Conference in early December, Vestberg said the operator’s mid-band spectrum holding means that there are “no challenges in network capacity” to reach its 2025 FWA customer target, as Fierce Telecom reported.
Not all operators are in Verizon’s position. ABI recommends operators should take steps to address potential capacity limits in future.
“MNOs considering FWA as a long-term solution should use Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques such as Machine Learning (ML) to generate in-depth analysis on the network quality and user experience, based on traffic growth, service and network Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), to help improve network resource utilization,” she said.
Beyond best effort
Most FWA services offered today are best effort and provide a monthly amount of data. According to Ericsson’s survey, only 25% of the 238 operators providing FWA (both 4G and 5G) offer speed-based tariffs with service tiers such as 100 Mbps or 500 Mbps.
Being able to guarantee download speeds for users puts 5G FWA more on a par with fixed-line fiber and cable broadband services. According to the vendor, this type of Quality-of-Service offer enables mobile operators to “fully monetize FWA as a broadband alternative.”
5G FWA strategies vary among operators and include using the access technology to provide business services, connectivity in unserved regions, value-added services, last-mile connectivity, and backup for fixed broadband, according to ABI.
Recent news from operators shows 5G FWA momentum: