Fixed wireless access (FWA) networks already had a promising future with 4G and much more with 5G, due to their increased intrinsic capabilities. However, it is a technology for high-speed Internet access that is very useful in relatively isolated areas and where there is not a large deployment of fiber optics. This causes serious limitations, especially in southern Europe and especially in Spain, where fiber optics now reach multiple populations, even those with low population density. The boom in the deployment of fiber in many other countries makes FWA the eternal promise for many, which has not been fully fulfilled, although with 5G it will have more possibilities.
Fiber Wireless Access networks, better known by their acronym FWA, are a bit like the update of microwave links from a few decades ago between two relatively distant points, only on a much smaller scale, both in signal transmission capacity and distance between fixed links. It is a solution, in any case, that can be used in many areas of any territory, until it is a universal solution for small population centers, where the laying of fixed fiber optic networks is hardly profitable in this decade.
In the Ericsson Mobility Report (EMR) last June, the Swedish company predicted that FWA connections would triple and almost reach 160 million at the end of 2025, compared to 51 million at the end of 2019. While it is estimated that at the end of 2019, FWA connections represented 15% of total data traffic in mobile networks worldwide, by the end of 2025 Ericsson it projected that they would account for 25% of the total. This would mean a brutal growth in the traffic supported by the FWA networks, close to multiplying by eight between the end of 2019 and 2025. The FWA networks would support 53 exabytes per month by the end of 2025 compared to the estimated 220 exabytes per month of total mobile data traffic. , as can be seen in the two graphs below, extracted from the Ericsson report.
Ericsson estimates that 185 operators worldwide now provide services using FWA technology, out of the 309 operators that offer mobile services (accounting for 98% of global billing). This means that the number of operators has doubled between December 2018 and June 2020. The same authors of the study acknowledge that current data may vary depending on the definition and scope of the FWA technology. For Ericsson, FWA is a technology for broadband access through a mobile network and through a fixed access terminal. This terminal can be a device located inside, on a table or next to a window, or outside the house or home, either on the roof or mounted on a wall facing the signal. But it does not include routers or wireless access pens or smartphones that act as a router over Wi-Fi.
FWA technology is not new or especially innovative, but 5G will provide you with greater performance and possibilities and a good alternative to fiber optic broadband in different countries and markets.
As Ericsson indicates in its mobility report, there are three basic factors that predict that the FWA market will grow a lot in the coming years and also the number of connections. First, the demand for broadband connectivity and digital services continues to increase among consumers and businesses. FWA connections over 4G or 5G are increasingly efficient compared to wired alternatives in areas where fixed infrastructure is limited and their higher capacity means that the cost for operators per distributed gigabyte is lower. Third, governments are boosting broadband connectivity with programs and subsidies, and FWA is seen as a vital alternative in rural areas.
Half a million FWA subscriptions in 2030
Counterpoint consultancy is also very optimistic about the rise of FWA. According to her calculations, by 2030 there will be just over 500,000 FWA subscriptions worldwide and almost 90% of them, by the end of this decade, will be FWA with 5G technology. Comparing this forecast of Counterpoint with that of Ericsson is complicated, because that of the Swedish company reaches until the end of 2025 and that of Counterpoint until 2030. It is also not clear that the concept of subscription and connection is the same, because a connection could serve for several homes if they are close enough and the signal is elevated, as all of them for several users.
The development of 5G FWA technology will be very accelerated in this decade, with an annual growth of 45%, calculates Counterpoint. This high increase is due, logically, to the fact that the number of current 5G FWA connections is insignificant, from 10.3 million according to the consultancy, to reach 459 million in 2030 and touch half a million with the global FWA market, 4G and 5G.
Where there will be the greatest penetration of 5G FWA in 2030 will be in Europe, with 31% of the total, as indicated in the top graph, followed by Asia Pacific with 20%. The Eurasian continent will therefore represent half of the global 5G FWA. America will together account for 31% of the total, with North America 14% and Central and South America 17%, while the Middle East and Africa will comprise the remaining 18%. Within these broad geographic regions, of course, there will be many differences by countries and regions of the world.
60% of homes with fixed broadband access
Currently, there are an estimated 2 billion households in the world and it is estimated that at the end of 2019 some 1.2 billion had access to a fixed broadband connection, 60% of all households, while by the end of 2025 it is assumed that the proportion could reach 70%, about 1,400 million households, according to the Omdia consultancy. FWA networks are included in these fixed broadband access calculations, where FWA networks represent around 10% of the total. Furthermore, it is presumed that the FWA technology will serve to replace around 300 million existing DSL connections, mainly with copper pair cables that are reaching the limits of their possibilities.
FWA technology will have an increasing potential market, but the competitiveness of other broadband access technologies, especially those fixed through fiber optics, will also be greater
These 1.2 billion fixed broadband connections to private homes and businesses, which will presumably be 1.4 billion within five years, serve several users using the same connection. A prudent calculation considers that 2.5 to 3 billion users have access, or the possibility, of a fixed broadband connection. The forecast that there will be 160 million FWA connections by the end of 2025 means that some 570 million individual users will have access to a broadband connection through a mobile telephone network, which in the last section, generally considered “the last mile ”will be through the air.
With the pandemic, which is becoming increasingly difficult to end in the short term and even rapidly reduced transmission levels are achieved, the confinement of the population will still be very extensive in the coming months. With more time spent in homes, there will also be a greater need for access to digital services, especially for teleworking and telelearning, and also for leisure tasks with the computer and streaming television. High-speed digital services are already becoming much more essential in the wake of the pandemic and its much higher demand.
In this context, FWA services have everything going for them to expand, although they have a relatively limited ceiling to grow. On the one hand, because the fixed infrastructures through fiber networks only spread throughout all developed countries and cover smaller populations. And, secondly, because 4G mobile networks already have a very wide coverage and with many more possibilities with 5G in a few years.
Access to broadband services through mobile networks can be a great alternative for homes with occasional use. For example, isolated second homes, where access through the smartphone and its connection via Wi-Fi to the computer or television may be sufficient. And it is profitable for users not to have a fixed broadband connection, be it FWA or fiber, if it is used relatively little and the data access rate with the mobile network is affordable with even unlimited as many operators are doing.
Large but limited FWA market
FWA technology will therefore have a growing potential market, but competition with other access technologies, especially fixed ones through fiber optics, will also be greater. In Germany, for example, fiber optic infrastructure is now very insufficient, as well as in Great Britain and Italy, to name three of the main broadband markets, which are now served mainly over copper or coaxial pair cables. but not fiber optics, although an attempt is being made to resolve this deficiency. In Germany, the recent agreement between Deusche Telekom and Telefónica to deploy a large shared FTTH (Fiber to the Home) infrastructure is a good example of the current boom in fiber optics.
In Spain, thanks to the wide coverage of broadband with fiber optics, about 82% of the population in 2019, means that FWA technology has a very limited market, only interesting in specific areas, and it could also be covered with 5G mobile networks in the new 700 MHz band to be tendered, as planned, in the first quarter of 2021. France is another of the uninteresting markets for FWA because, although the fiber optic infrastructure is much lower than that of Spain , of 46% in 2019, in the next it is wanted to be very extensive.
Ultimately, of the large European broadband markets, the most important for the rise of FWA are Germany and the United Kingdom. The case of Italy is a bit particular because it will be, according to Omdia, the one that will have the most FWA subscriptions in 2024, close to two million, but it will grow little, because it already has just over 1.5 million subscriptions in 2020. Germany will have 1.5 million FWA subscriptions in 2024, compared to 218,000 today, while the United Kingdom will have, according to Omdia’s calculations, 1.13 million FWA subscriptions in 2024 compared to 191,000 today.
The Spanish and French markets will grow, proportionally, to levels similar to those of Germany and Britain, but this year they will start from low levels, 143,000 subscriptions in the Spanish case and 68,000 in French. Due to the high penetration of fiber optics in Spain and France, the growth of the FWA market in the coming years will be much lower than the other large European markets mentioned. Still, 464,000 FWA subscriptions are expected in Spain and 267,000 in France in 2024, always according to Omdia.
The future evolution of FWA will depend, to a large extent, on the deployment in the coming years in the different markets of fiber optics and 5G coverage with millimeter waves, which allow the signal to travel long distances through the air at high speed, to then redistribute them, and with low 5G bands, which allow great wireless coverage although at a relatively low speed. Another key factor will be the development of FWA receptors. In this regard, the establishment by the FWA Technology Forum at the end of July, of a common platform of FWA equipment, with the support of the GSA association, chipset manufacturers and operators, will contribute to making the terminals more compatible, with greater benefits and cheaper.
In reality, FWA is neither a new technology nor a particularly innovative service, because it was started twenty years ago. Rather, it is an alternative to broadband, fixed or purely wireless services via Wi-Fi routers. FWA’s takeoff will be inversely proportional to broadband services in each of the markets. In some, FWA will do very well because the other technologies that provide broadband will not be as advanced, while in other markets it will be the other way around. FWA is still, in many respects, a niche technology, to which 5G provides new possibilities.