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12 October 2020

The three US operators go head-to-head with LTE fixed wireless

The US operators have been heavily focused on 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) as well as mobile broadband, for various reasons. For Verizon, it provides a way to extend its fiber footprint in the home while making the best of the limited range of its millimeter wave spectrum. T-Mobile, lacking a fixed-line network, is looking to deliver fixed, mobile and TV services over a common multi-layered RAN. And AT&T wants to replace all its ageing DSL copper lines with wireless connectivity, and also use cellular to comply with government conditions for rural access funding.

This is not just about 5G however. The two leading operators have been implementing some LTE FWA for some years now. Last week, Verizon’s VP of 5G commercialization, Brian Danfield, talked about the carrier’s LTE Home Internet saying: “At this moment it’s where the technology is at, where the demand is at, and the things we’ve learned … We’re balancing our LTE network investment and offering this product.”

The 4G offering, mainly for rural areas, has been expanded to cover parts of 189 markets in 48 states. It is not Verizon’s first 4G fixed connection, but a service called Home Fusion, launched in 2012, was discontinued because speeds were low. The new LTE Home Internet, however, reaches typical speeds of 25Mbps and peaks of 50Gbps in some areas, using a $240 home router based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon X20 chipset.

By contrast, the newly unveiled 5G Home FWA router, powered by Qualcomm’s  QTM527 product, will reach gigabit peak speeds in some areas.

The cost of the 5G Home service is $50 per month for Verizon customers and $70 per month for non-Verizon customers. This compares to LTE Home Internet, which costs $40 per month for Verizon customers and $60 per month for non-Verizon customers.

Meanwhile, AT&T has announced that it will no longer sell DSL-based broadband packages, and will replace them with fiber or FWA. The rip-and-replace cost of fiber versus FWA favors the latter in many locations, but this headache could have been avoided had operators such as AT&T bitten the bullet sooner, and invested in fiber lines that could be left in the ground almost in perpetuity. The nice thing about optical fiber is that you only really have to upgrade the boxes at either end, not the line itself.

Instead, AT&T will be looking to leverage its mobile network, to provide high speed broadband to homes that don’t meet the ROI criteria for laying new fiber to the premises. Some DSL homes will be easier to upgrade to fiber than others, and those others are hopefully suitable for FWA – otherwise, AT&T risks losing them to cable rivals or the emerging threat of LEO satellite services like SpaceX’s Starlink.

Recently, AT&T disclosed that it had 880,000 LTE-based FWA customer locations and expects to get to 1.1m by the end of 2020. With all the marketing hype around 5G, it should be able to pitch 5G-based FWA as a viable alternative for customers in cable footprints that might not be able to access AT&T’s fixed line fiber. In those scenarios, FWA may well provide a nicer profit margin.

T-Mobile USA has also announced a major extension of its pilot of LTE fixed wireless for home services, trying to take advantage of AT&T’s discontinuation of DSL. The pilot offering will reach more than 20m households in parts of 450 cities and towns that are “being abandoned by AT&T in the middle of a pandemic when connectivity has never been more important”, as TMO’s publicity put it.

The pilot service is available on a “first-come, first-served basis based on equipment inventory and local network capacity,” which it noted “is expanding all the time.” It is priced at $50 a month, but with no fees for the self-installable router – instead there is a $0 hardware lease with service for the T-Mobile LTE Wi-Fi Gateway.