Fixed wireless access has become one of the top use cases of 5G. Telecom service providers that have made fixed wireless access a focused initiative have seen significant gains in subscribers in recent years.
For example, in March 2023, Leichtman Research Group that 90% of the 3.5 million subscribers U.S. broadband providers served in 2022 received fixed wireless services. Mobile network operators (MNOs) T-Mobile and Verizon gained nearly 3.2 million fixed wireless subscribers in 2022, a quadruple increase from 730,000 in 2021. Experts predict these numbers will only continue to increase as the decade continues. In March 2023, ABI Research projected global FWA subscriptions will increase to 72 million by 2027.
Although 5G has propelled the adoption of FWA, the technology precedes 5G and has existed for decades. Previous generations of cellular and other wireless technologies also used FWA, but the technology has grown in popularity because 5G capabilities better support it. According to Dan Hays, principal at PwC, 5G's higher speed capacity enables MNOs to deliver FWA with a better UX for users.
"5G also delivers a convergence of mobile and fixed technologies to a fixed location," Hays said. "They're both now using the same chipsets, the same hardware and, in many cases, even the same networks."
5G enables MNOs to deploy FWA more easily and capture -- as well as deliver -- the benefits of FWA, which include accessibility, affordability and availability, according to Hays.
FWA uses 5G radio waves, instead of fibers and cables, to deliver wireless broadband to fixed locations. Because FWA doesn't require physical infrastructure to enable a connection, MNOs can deliver services to consumers in locations where network connectivity couldn't previously exist, such as rural areas. This development is useful for consumers in rural areas in the U.S., but Hays said FWA will likely be more of a game-changer for users in developing countries that lack wireless networks and fiber availability.
"Fixed wireless is perhaps an even more important solution for emerging markets than it is for more mature markets around the world," Hays said.
Some experts argue that FWA should be the choice only for users with limited connectivity options. Users located in areas with developed telecom infrastructure should select wired broadband options because they provide a superior network experience, in terms of speed, reliability and performance, compared with FWA.
Because FWA extends broadband to more locations, users in areas with limited broadband offerings can now choose between more options for connectivity. This creates more market competition and can help reduce consumer prices, which is especially useful in a high-inflation environment, Hays said. FWA is also a less expensive option for users whose only previous options for network connectivity cost more.
FWA can also be more cost-effective for MNOs to deploy. Because FWA uses the same cell towers and base stations as mobile connectivity options, MNOs can use their existing 5G infrastructure for FWA. For example, Hays said if an MNO has extra 5G capacity in a cell tower, they can market the connectivity to customers nearby.
MNOs can sell this capacity to consumers at low prices because they already have the capacity and equipment available. Moreover, because MNOs can reuse 5G infrastructure for FWA -- and because FWA doesn't require physical cables -- it simplifies the deployment process, saving time and costs for MNOs.
Other providers, such as fixed wireless operators, can also save on costs by using 5G, Hays said. In the past, FWA equipment cost more before it became widespread. Now that 5G is the primary method for enabling FWA, equipment is readily available and cheaper, which lowers the operational costs of delivering broadband.
FWA also improves quality of service for consumers, Hays said. 5G-enabled FWA offers higher speeds, more bandwidth and lower latency than other connectivity options, such as mobile broadband. Customers whose only choices for broadband were slower wireline connections, such as DSL, can now take advantage of FWA to receive a faster broadband connection, he said.
Enterprises can use FWA as a backup link to ensure network resiliency. Most enterprises use wired connections as the primary links, but FWA can serve as a cheap and simple option for a backup connection in case of an outage.
Disadvantages of FWA
FWA offers several advantages to MNOs, fixed wireless providers and customers, but it isn't without drawbacks. While the business opportunity of FWA is high, MNOs must evaluate where FWA falls short to determine if the technology is worth the investment.
Some disadvantages of FWA include the following:
- Reliability. FWA can function as an improved broadband connection, but wireless connectivity still sometimes experiences weather-related outages or interruptions from physical objects like buildings or trees.
- Inferior to wired cables. FWA is cheaper and easier to install than wired connections, but fiber and cable offer higher speeds, greater reliability and better performance.
- Limited range. The fixed in fixed wireless access refers to the fact that broadband only exists in areas between cell towers, which means FWA doesn't support wireless roaming.
FWA connects global users
Wired broadband options remain the most popular choices to enable a network connection. FWA is an alternative -- or supplemental -- option for consumers and enterprises. Rather than replacing fiber or cable altogether, FWA creates an opportunity for MNOs to deliver high-speed broadband to users most in need of connectivity at low-cost rates.
FWA benefits indicate the primary advantage is its ability to eliminate the digital divide in the U.S. and around the world. Now that FWA has become more mainstream with 5G, operators and consumers are able to realize the benefits of FWA, which could help create a more interconnected world.