While 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) receives a new round of attention from the community - carriers, vendors, and analysts, the issues it will need to resolve are much older. Prior to 5G, fixed wireless has undergone at least two previous instantiations neither of which were ultimately successful. The 1st boom of innovative, largely OFDM-based startup ventures in 2000 all focused on the total cost of ownership and tried to develop complete systems solving product cost plus labor plus OA&M with technology alone. The effort to develop a complete system from modem to antenna to software proved too big of a lift for any one company.
WiMAX came around 5 years later, and in its initial version was a 2nd Fixed Wireless Access solution, based on a standard spec this time, IEEE-802.16. Because it was based on a standard WiMAX had the advantage of having an ecosystem of vendors specializing in some specific part, or parts, of a complete system. With this approach, OEM companies could take best in breed portions to build their own products. This effort was destined to fail, as it too did not solve the core issues for residential fixed wireless, resulting in ROI numbers that were not palatable to either the carriers or their investors.
What is Needed?
Fixed Wireless Access to the residential market is a hard problem to solve, witness the two previous attempts. To be successful FWA needs to meet two core needs. First, FWA must be able to offer similar services in terms of speeds and application support when compared to wireline options. Second this must be done at a comparable or better cost. Given that a wireless system inherently has more complex components than a cable modem system, that makes this a very difficult but not unsolvable problem. Carriers want to see a business plan that can deliver an ROI in less than two years, sometimes as fast as one year, and be able to do it at a price that competes with cable, DSL and/or fiber.
What are the challenges that need to be solved?
- Spectrum – the solution must provide ample capacity and allow high density deployments with minimal licensing costs.
- Coverage - the FWA system must reach enough customers at a fee low enough to be competitive yet still be able to fund the supporting infrastructure.
- CPE or Terminal Unit (TU) cost – need to be on a par with a standard cable modem and its activation costs.
- Installation - labor costs for installing a single residential FWA TU must be aligned with the cost of the CPE. With vendors pushing TU prices to $200 and less, sometimes under $100, this represents a significant portion of the total cost of capturing and serving a customer.
- Attractive Service Offerings – Even in the heyday of WiMAX, FWA was offering connection speeds of 10’s of Mbps while fiber and cable were touting 100Mbps up to 1Gbps. Thus FWA from a performance perspective was often inferior to competing solutions. While many users may not need today a full Gig today, service providers want to deploy a future safe technology while customers like simple decisions where price is often more important than speed
- Size and Aesthetics - FWA TUs from the first batch of products in the early 2000s were fairly large. Based on sub 6GHz frequencies, in order to get a decent range a 1-foot antenna was often required. Having a pizza box on roofs or the sides of houses was often times not allowed in many communities and complicated the idea of self-installation.
With the challenges clearly defined, the question to be answered: Can 5G FWA deliver?