5G opening up new prospects for fixed-wireless access
5G FWA is already a reality. The latest technological developments are enabling Gigabit-speed connections, which raises the question of the relationship with FTTx networks: will they be rivals or complement one another? IDATE DigiWorld forecasts a global market of more than 38 million subscribers and close to 5 billion USD in revenue in 2024, primarily in Europe and in North America.
Europe and the United States, driving FWA growth up to 2024
The development of 5G fixed-wireless access (FWA) will begin mainly in North America, but also in Europe even if operators there are focusing more on expanding their FTTH coverage. In the medium term, these markets’ development will enable the mass production of equipment and the resulting decrease in prices, making it more affordable.
5G FWA is already there and subscriptions will grow significantly by 2024
The still high cost of equipment is impeding the deployment momentum of 5G FWA in regions like Africa and South America, even if the technology is an attractive solution for covering remote areas – as proven in the launch of initiatives in South Africa and Lesotho. Meanwhile, in other regions such as northern Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, focus is more on FTTH and mobile 5G, and less so on FWA.
5G FWA: a tool for shaking up fixed market competition
FWA market potential strong in Europe and North America (Regional distribution of the global FWA market in 2024)
Total FWA revenue in 2024 (incl. 5G and other): 4.7 billion $
Total FWA subscribers in 2024 (incl. 5G and other): 38.4 million subscribers
Needed mid-band resources already available, and mmWave spectrum will be by 2021
FWA performances and usage differ depending on the frequency bands used for 5G: mid-band (below 6 GHz) or mmWave (above 24 GHz) spectrum. The availability of these resources and compatible equipment is thus a crucial issue, and one that operators need to manage with equipment suppliers and regulators.
Today equipment suppliers are selling mature and standardised 5G FWA hardware, and especially customer premises equipment (CPE). The hardware needed for mid-band FWA is available in the marketplace, and we will start to see standardised mmWave equipment in 2020, with most suppliers currently marketing hardware for unlicensed bands. Finally, mid-band frequencies have been widely released in Europe, but mmWave spectrum is not likely to be before 2021 at the earliest.
Two strategies for 5G FWA players
Strategic use of 5G FWA by type of operator
5G FWA: a useful tool for both fixed and mobile operators
5G FWA will not kill fibre, but it will have a sizeable influence on both fixed and mobile operators’ strategies. In the United States, Verizon was the first operator to launch a true 5G FWA plan back in 2018, in those parts of the country where it had no mobile presence. Here, 5G FWA serves as a tool for shaking up competition in fixed markets, enabling mobile operators to deploy bundled offers and compete with FTTx network owners.
On the flipside, operators can use FWA as a transitional solution, either prior to FTTH rollouts as a way to gain a foothold in the market more rapidly, or while awaiting the launch of mobile 5G and the availability of compatible devices, to begin earning a return on infrastructure spending as soon as possible.
5G FWA helping mobile operators be more competitive
Verizon's 5G FWA service footprint
What role for FWA as legacy networks are being switched off?
We are hearing more and more announcements on the dismantling of legacy networks, copper ones in particular, and switch-off processes are underway, chiefly in Europe, the United States and in Australia. Several countries have given provisional dates for the complete switch-off of their copper networks, the soonest being in 2023 – 2025.
Here, FWA could take over for legacy networks before their wireline replacement is fully in place, if such plans exist. A good example is Norway, where incumbent carrier Telenor has not deployed fibre in certain unprofitable rural areas, but nevertheless plans on switching off its copper network completely in 2024, and to have good quality nationwide 4G coverage in place. In those parts of the country that do not have FTTP coverage, current fixed internet and phone services will be supplied by fixed-wireless access (4G and later 5G).
In the coming years, then, the pace of these switch-offs will be key to determining FWA’s place in the technology mix.