Broadband: Can Fixed Wireless Access pave the way for new 5G connections, even where there are no antennas and no economic investment? The answer is yes. When people talk about Fixed Wireless Access, aka FWA, they often think of a service that is only slightly better than 4G, certainly inferior to the forthcoming 5G and in any case a poor choice in terms of quality and speed. But this is not the case. Benefiting from the extension of the mobile network throughout the country, FWA is a valid choice both to provide users with the connection capacity made impossible by the absence of ADSL and fiber, and to offer versatility and flexibility, in a winning mix between the stability of fixed access and the pervasiveness of the mobile signal.
All this is quite evident in Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, which highlights the rise of FWA technology more than 4G has done in the past, so much so that it will involve over 60 million connections at the end of 2020; numbers that are expected to reach 800 million by 2027.
What is FWA
It is worth remembering that FWA is not an antagonist to fiber but an ally when the latter does not reach uncovered areas of the country. Or rather, there are cases in which a fiber connection deteriorates in what we call the last mile, and this is where Fixed Wireless Access comes into play. The opportunity to be able to quickly replace ADSL, without having to carry out major structural work, is an important aspect. As well as the opportunity to connect users who do not have any kind of access to fixed or mobile connectivity, passing then to the so-called “Cable TV”, not very widespread in Italy, but still a technology that can reduce the distance between those who do not enjoy connected services and those who can finally do so, using a fixed-wireless access to the network, for quality streaming.
Citizens and consumers, but also companies, especially the smallest ones (SMEs), which now base most of their work on a connection network and therefore cannot remain ‘disconnected’ from the rest of the world and their customers. In jargon, we consider FWA to be the type of connection that provides broadband access via a mobile-enabled customer premises equipment (CPE) network. This includes both indoor and outdoor access points but not Wi-Fi routers or portable dongles based on battery operation.
Going back to the Mobility Report and the FWA findings, by 2027 the connection type will account for around 25 per cent of global mobile data traffic. Of 800 million, 70 million will be 5G FWA connections, representing around 40 per cent of total FWA connections. And the path to so-called “5G FWA” is already practically written, even if investments are needed for the construction and installation of antennas, starting with millimetric ones. At that point, it is likely that Fixed Wireless Access could become a real “fiber challenger”, in terms of activation range and speed.
In Central and Eastern Europe, 4G is the dominant technology, accounting for 61 percent of all subscriptions at the end of 2021. In 2027, 4G will remain the dominant technology and is expected to account for 59 percent of mobile subscriptions, while 5G subscriptions are forecast to make up 41 percent. During the forecast period, there will continue to be a significant decline in WCDMA/HSPA, from 32 percent to virtually zero, as users migrate to 4G and 5G. To date, around 25 5G networks have been commercially launched across the region.
The importance of home access
This year we have had to get used to “rescheduling” routine activities in a different way. First, work activities, no longer carried out in the office but at home, often with the difficulty of not having a home connection suitable for serving the various access needs, including business, distance learning and maintaining family relationships. FWA has been more of an option in this landscape, especially in Europe. Western Europe shows the highest adoption of FWA at 93%, some 10 percentage points higher than the previous survey in February 2020, when Covid-19 was not a pandemic and had not led to restrictive and containment measures. Of the 2 billion households worldwide, about 1.2 billion (60%) had a fixed broadband connection at the end of 2019; by the end of 2026, this figure will rise to about 1.5 billion (about 70%). Considering that an FWA connection brings connectivity to at least three to five people in a household, the forecast of more than 180 million FWA connections by the end of 2026 affects around 650 million individuals with access to a wireless broadband connection.
Obviously, the growing figure leads operators to approach the market directly. The introduction of FWA offerings has doubled since the first measurements were taken in December 2018 compared to the figures in October 2020, when out of the 311 operators surveyed by Ericsson globally, 200 had an FWA offering. The growth of FWA is driven by three factors: increased consumer and business demand for digital services; consolidation that the technology is a cost-effective alternative for broadband connections in areas not reached by ADSL, cable, or fiber; and the definition by governments of programs and incentives to encourage its development, which is seen as fundamental to the digital and economic growth of individual countries.