August 27, 2019
Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece William Webb, telecoms industry consultant, explores the scenarios in which Fixed Wireless Access is most useful.
Getting copper, cable or fibre to homes and offices is tough. Typically, it requires digging up roads, paths and gardens, using expensive labour, taking months or years and overcoming multiple bureaucratic hurdles. It gets ever-harder as the better opportunities are addressed first, leaving areas where houses are further apart and the willingness to pay for high-speed broadband less clear.
With a take-up rate of 1/3rd and 10m home spacing, costs of providing fibre can easily be £2,000 per home connected. And with wholesale broadband prices at around £15/month that means a payback of over 11 years – a long time for investments that can easily run into billions. In suburban areas with greater home spacing and lower take-up, payback can extend towards 20 years.
Those difficulties have led many, over the last 30 years, to consider wireless as a way around the need to dig. Fixed wireless access (FWA) has been tried around the world with bespoke technologies, with WiMax, with cellular solutions and now with variants of 5G. To date, none have been particularly successful and wireless provides only a tiny fraction of the home broadband connections.
FWA has failed in the past because the economics were never as good as hoped. Often the range of the base station was less than expected and many homes within range were unable to get an adequate signal due to local blockage resulting in too few homes per base station. Self-installation of the customer premise equipment (CPE) rarely worked, leading to relatively expensive installation costs. And often the existing competition upped their game, providing higher data rates and lower prices such that the wireless solution became unattractive. All of these factors remain true, suggesting serious questions need to be asked about any FWA proposals.
The current US deployments by AT&T and Verizon look likely to fall into many of these traps. Base stations and masts are expensive so the operators try to push the range to the limit. This results in many homes not being able to get a good signal, and weaker signal conditions at some pulling down the overall cell capacity. Getting fibre to the masts is expensive and if that much fibre is being laid why not just extend it to the homes anyway? The amount of spectrum that they have is also limiting. While much greater than at cellular frequencies, it is insufficient to allow for many homes in a cell to have simultaneous Gbit connectivity and have some spectrum spare for wireless backhaul or repeaters. And the competition in the US is intense with most homes already being served by copper, cable and in some cases fibre.
But despite all that history and the pessimism, there may be a role for FWA. It could succeed in areas where:
Current broadband speeds are below around 20-40Mbits/s, such that for some homes the broadband speed becomes a limiting factor.
Fibre is expensive to deploy, perhaps because homes are farther apart, access rights are limited, or likely take-up rate for the service is low.
FWA has been helped by the availability of 60GHz spectrum. This brings three big advantages over other mmWave or FWA spectrum:
The spectrum is unlicensed so there are no costs of spectrum acquisition, and deployment can start immediately.
There is a lot of spectrum – between 7GHz and 14GHz in many countries. This allows for relatively profligate usage to homes and for wireless backhaul, keeping costs much lower.
There is low-cost equipment, building on the back of chipsets developed for WiGig and on a growing global marketplace generating economies of scale.
But mmWave frequencies bring challenges of low range and the need for line-of-sight connections if Gbit rates are to be delivered. This inevitably means a lot of base stations. So the economics only work if the overall base station cost can be kept low. This requires:
Using existing structures for masts – lampposts are ideal as they also have power available.
Using wireless backhaul from the lampposts to avoid the need to run fibre down the streets anyway.
Using low cost fibre connectivity to a cluster of lampposts ideally by accessing existing ducts, removing the need to dig.
Using low-cost base stations (often called “access points” or APs) designed and built more like Wi-Fi routers than cellular base stations.
These conditions all need to be met – otherwise the economics of broadly one base station per eight homes will just not work. Barriers can include limited access to lampposts or excessive rent charging from local authorities. Initial experience suggests that there are many towns, villages and outer suburban areas where FWA can be made to work. Where it does, it not only lowers the through-life cost by 50% or more, it is much faster – deployment can happen in weeks rather than the months or years needed to bury fibre. That is good news for those awaiting broadband, for politicians keen to move up the broadband league, and not least for investors who start to see revenues almost immediately.
In a country like the UK, FWA could easily access 20% of the home broadband market. It will not succeed in urban areas where fibre is already deployed, or where the economics of fibre work. Gbit FWA will not work in rural areas where the range needed is too great (although other, lower speed solutions can be helpful here). But in between there are many homes and businesses who might otherwise have to wait a decade for fibre. It could be deployed by a new dedicated FWA operator or as part of a toolkit of solutions from fibre broadband players. It could be used as a way to provide service to areas before eventual fibre deployment, or as a long-term solution.
There is one other barrier to its success. Many have become fixated on “full fibre”. This is a technology obsession – what is needed is high speed broadband to the home not glass buried under the front driveway. This view has arisen because of the assumption that only fibre can provide the near-infinite bandwidths assumed to be needed in the future. But this is false because (1) there is little evidence of rapid bandwidth demand growth and (2) wireless can also provide extremely high bandwidths using ever-higher frequencies. If wireless can deliver what it needed more quickly and cheaply then why not use it? But for many, fibre has become something of a religion, and it is hard to shake those kind of beliefs.
Professor William Webb is CEO of the Weightless SIG, the standards body developing a new global M2M technology. He is also Director at Webb Search, an independent consultancy, where he acts as a consultant for companies including Tutela. Previously, he was a Director at UK regulator, Ofcom.
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