Arqiva initiates fixed wireless trials as it boosts 5G spectrum and sites

Having acquired 28 GHz spectrum licences in London last month, UK towerco Arqiva is wasting no time in announcing field trials, tapping into rising interest in millimeter wave frequencies to support fixed wireless access (FWA). It will work with Samsung on the London trial, which will use the vendor’s pre-standard 5G equipment to test two-way links able to deliver gigabit downlink speeds over several hundred meters to home or small business routers.

The trial is set to run for four months and Arqiva – which is up for sale – aims to prove the stability of the fixed wireless technology as a viable alternative solution to fiber or souped-up DSL. Another UK supporter of FWA, Relish, was recently sold, along with its 3.5 GHz spectrum, to Hutchison 3, highlighting the rising interest in higher bands for boosting wireless capacity to fiber-like levels.

Arqiva gave more details of its trial, which will center on a radio unit on the rooftop of the firm’s central London offices and a virtualized Samsung core, running on Arqiva servers. The radio unit will use beamforming to link to a window-attached router at a distance of about 230 meters, and in a commercial scenario, this will be packaged in a compact access point to be mounted on street furniture.

Arqiva plans to wholesale FWA services to operators as an alternative to fiber. CEO Simon Beresford-Wylie said: “A number of operators today will offer a fixed service, either something they have themselves or something they might buy from Openreach.
[5G FWA] represents an alternative to the Openreach fixed access offering, and it’s something operators can include in a bundle.”

The business model for urban FWA looks very challenging, given the low cost of fiber solutions in cities like London. But among the advantages of FWA over fiber are the lower cost and reduced time to market, so these have to be driven home and guaranteed. “Part of the reason for doing the trial is getting a better idea of the cost of the equipment end-to-end from core, through base station and transmission,” Beresford-Wylie told Mobile Europe. “Fixed wireless access has been around before, but they’ve been niche technologies like WiMAX. The ecosystem around them is such that the costs have not come down to what they need to be. But in 5G, modems, radio frequency chips, devices will be produced at scale which means the cost will come down.”

As well as controlling 60% of the 28 GHz spectrum in London, and 40% nationally, Arqiva is building up its access to infrastructure which could support city, FWA and small cell deployments.

For instance, it recently secured its twelfth street furniture concession in London, having won exclusive access to these locations from the London Borough of Lambeth. This will enhance the firm’s ability to support mobile operators in rolling out small cells to underpin smart city services over the coming years.

The Lambeth contract will last for 10 years, and will involve about 15,000 lampposts across the borough. Arqiva has similar deals with 11 other London boroughs as well as with five other local authorities (Manchester, Southampton, Colchester, Eastbourne and Medway).

Arqiva sees this as a logical extension of its macro tower business, and like other towercos such as the US’s Crown Castle, it is expanding into the sites for new types of network equipment. Some of these efforts have been more successful than others – Arqiva has reduced its involvement with Sigfox to build low power wide area networks, and has pulled back from public WiFi activities.

Across the Irish Channel, FWA operator Imagine is working with Huawei to launch a wireless alternative to FTTP (fiber-to-the-premises). The company plans to LTE-Advanced technologies such as Massive MIMO and carrier aggregation to deliver speeds of over 200Mbps to homes. The network will start to be rolled out in October, and Imagine is targeting 85% coverage by 2019. The operator recently obtained a 3.5 GHz licence and expects to use that for 5G in future.

Imagine founder and executive chairman Sean Bolger said: “The Imagine network will overcome the significant challenges that have impeded the delivery of future-proofed high speed broadband services across Ireland and meet the government objective of a truly connected society, positioning both rural and urban Ireland to fully capitalize on the digital economy.”