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6 December 2022

Vodafone shows FWA is not just a USA show, launches in Spain

Casual followers of fixed wireless access (FWA) progression might conclude that it has become almost an exclusive USA show recently, given the high rate of roll-out there combined with more glacial progress across most of Europe and other leading economies. However, FWA has also been proliferating in many developing countries, especially those with dense populations and patchy fixed-line broadband coverage outside major cities.

There is also a distinction between 5G FWA, which for the first time provides a genuine alternative to fiber when that is not available, and legacy 4G or proprietary FWA solutions, which were sometimes the only option for premises without access to cable and a long way from the nearest DSL fiber node in telco networks. That dearth of broadband alternatives led to significant FWA roll-outs earlier in the 4G era in a few European countries such as Poland and Austria, but those services became less attractive as expectations advanced and operators in some cases reined in on service plans that had allowed unlimited amounts of data.

Now we are witnessing some major 5G FWA developments in Europe. For instance, Vodafone launched in Spain at the end of November, promising download speeds up to 1Gbps. “Some of the advantages of this solution, which was presented at the Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2022, are the speed and ease of self-installation, since customers only have to follow a few simple steps to start using the service,” said the company.

Initially available in areas of Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Valencia, Seville, Zaragoza, Malaga, Bilbao and A Coruna, as well as surrounding metropolitan areas, the 5G FWA service will expand to another 65 cities during 2023.

This launch came just before Spain’s auction this month of 12 national allocations in the 25.10-27.50 GHz millimeter wave band, plus 38 regional ones in the 24.70-25.10 GHz band. Vodafone may be considering using spectrum acquired in those bands for FWA, which has become a major use case for mmWave alongside densification in urban areas – and in most cases, ahead of that. South Korea’s recent decision to cancel the mmWave licences of two mobile operators highlighted the challenges in using this high frequency spectrum for mobile use cases, and most MNOs have sufficient midband spectrum not to have to attempt the feat.

A new generation of 5G beamforming technology has improved the propagation of mmWave signals so that, given line of sight, they can reach further, and deeper indoors, than with first generation systems. This should make mmWave more appealing than had been thought for FWA, given the large spectral bands available. This brings scope for offloading FWA data, which imposes far higher volume per-household on average than is consumed on mobile handsets.

Indeed, 5G mmWave is enjoying a reincarnation around FWA. In its first coming it successfully delivered fiber-like speeds, but over disappointingly short distances, in dense urban environments. The densification therefore required to provide full coverage meant that consumers would have to be charged fiber-like prices for operators to achieve return on investment in an acceptable time, and that is one reason Verizon, in the USA, has reigned back on mmWave for mobility and switched it to FWA. The more important reason, of course, is that Verizon finally gained midband 5G spectrum in the C-band auctions, and was no longer forced to use the challenging mmWave frequencies as its primary 5G capacity spectrum.

More generally, 5G roll-out is going to provide a fillip for FWA in both developed and developing countries, by enabling the higher bit-rates that users now expect, which are beyond the scope of legacy FWA based on 4G, WiMAX or proprietary systems. Currently, as Ericsson has just pointed out, only about 30% of the 100m global FWA subscriber base is on 5G, but that is now rising quickly, at about 20% a year.

Ericsson’s data also shows that almost 40% of 5G FWA launches came in emerging markets during 2022, including Mexico, South Africa and the Philippines, as well as India. The latter is interesting because growth there could drive up the global FWA base substantially given its large population, in the wake of the country’s 5G spectrum auctions completed in August 2022. Around that time Reliance Jio, India’s largest mobile operator, set an aggressive target of 100m households to be reached by its 5G FWA service in a few years.

This reflects a switch in strategy away from fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), for which Jio had made equally bullish predictions a few years ago. In the event that roll-out stalled with only around 7m reached in two years of construction, as a result not just of spiraling costs but also difficulties obtaining planning permission for cable ducting. The maturation of 5G FWA now presents Jio with a far more attractive and rapid roll-out alternative for high-speed broadband, with the possibility of self-install in the home using CPE reception equipment capable of 360-degree scanning for the best signal.

If Jio does achieve that target, then about one-third of India’s households would enjoy Internet and often pay-TV access over Jio’s 5G FWA, in addition to any subscribers for rival FWA services, so that would represent a major healing of the country’s broadband divide. There are similar ambitions in many other densely populated developing countries.

In sparser rural areas, whether in developing or developed countries, FWA is less attractive because it may not be viable to reach the required base stations with backhaul. In such cases, satellite connectivity may become more cost-effective (see item this week on 5G connectivity in transportation).