What is Fixed Wireless Access?

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- everything RF

May 28, 2020

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is a way of providing wireless connectivity through radio links between two fixed points. In other words, fixed wireless is a way to provide wireless internet access to homes or businesses without laying fiber and cables to provide last mile connectivity. FWA enables network operators to provide ultra-high-speed broadband to sub-urban and rural areas where the cost of laying fiber or maintaining fiber lines is prohibitively expensive.

Fixed wireless technologies (LTE, WiMAX, etc) have been around for quite some time. However, the cost and complexity of providing fixed broadband has continually challenged the roll-out of high-speed data services. While technologies such as WiMAX had attempted to bypass the local loop or prevent the fiber trench, these initiatives largely failed - primarily because they demanded a completely new overlay infrastructure and expensive proprietary equipment. FWA based on 4G/LTE technology has also been deployed, however, the technology is spectrally inefficient, expensive to deploy, and unable to provide the speeds needed to compete with wired broadband connections.

All this is set to change with 5G technology. 5G Fixed Wireless Access employs standardized 3GPP architectures and common mobile components to deliver ultra-high-speed broadband services to residential subscribers and enterprise customers. Featuring New Radio in the millimeter wavelength, 5G FWA can provide a competitive alternative to fixed-line DSL, Cable, and fiber across all markets. By this, suburban and rural consumers can receive the bandwidth required to support high definition streaming services and high-speed Internet access.

The next generation of 5G-based fixed wireless technology is expected to hit data rates in the order of several Gbps, well within the range of existing fiber technology. A big portion of the improvement in data rates between 5G and older technologies will come from increased spectral capacity. 5G fixed wireless networks are expected to utilize mm-Wave bands (28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, etc.) where larger chunks of contiguous spectrum are readily available for use. In addition to increased spectrum, 5G networks are also being designed to increase spectral efficiency by orders of magnitude when compared to its 4G predecessors. Advanced antenna technologies such as massive MIMO, beamforming, and beam tracking will serve as key enablers.

Key Challenges Faced by Fixed Wireless Access:

  • Radio transmission in the mm-Wave bands is inherently lossy. It is also highly sensitive to environmental changes (foliage, snow, rain, etc.). Service providers must plan for smaller cell sizes that will result in increased infrastructure cost per household passed. Beamforming and massive MIMO technologies are meant to alleviate some of those issues; however, those technologies are complex and expensive.
  • Higher propagation losses will also require the customer’s in-home gateway, also known as customer premise equipment, to radiate higher levels of radio power to maintain an acceptable link. New technologies should be developed to maintain adequate safety from RF exposure.
  • State and local regulatory bodies must ease zoning restrictions to accelerate operator’s ability to install radio units in neighborhoods. Long zoning approval cycles may further erode the business case.
  • Governments, service providers, equipment manufacturers, and semiconductor vendors will all have to coalesce around a single 5G standard within a set of globally harmonized spectrums. Standardization will enable a robust ecosystem of multiple vendors helping drive down costs.