5G’s superior performance makes it a truly enabling technology for FWA – but its exact capabilities depend on how it uses its available spectrum. This post looks at 5G possibilities and their impact on the 5G FWA market. ‘5G FWA’ is a somewhat minimal phrase, yet unpacking it reveals much about the present and future of high-performance telecommunications.
FWA, or fixed wireless access, is not new; it has been available for some time, implemented using 4G cellular technology to create an internet connection at a fixed location. Businesses have regarded 4G FWA as an effective backup method to increase resilience – but not as a primary communications channel as it does not meet their reliability, speed, or latency performance requirements.
5G, however, changes all this. It not only eliminates these earlier FWA problems, but can compete with or exceed fiber cable performance, while users can quickly set up their own CPE to handle it – a great improvement on the typically six months needed to arrange a wired MPLS installation. Accordingly, 5G FWA markets extend to a broad range of applications.
Branch offices or warehouses in remote locations, or on sites where cabling installation is uneconomical or not possible, can use 5G FWA instead. And temporary sites like music events, retail concessions or building projects can be up and running very quickly. Additionally, 5G FWA can be attractive even where cable is also available; pricing plans can be competitive, and growth in mmWave spectrum will enable yet more top-end performance applications.
While the benefits of 5G FWA for end users are clear, it also offers considerable attractions for network operators. FWA requires lower upfront investment than a capital-intensive fiber installation program – and investment can scale with subscriber growth. Moreover, capacity investments for FWA can be shared with other mobile network services resulting in lower risk. Even if there is no uptake of FWA services, the operator can still use that capacity for other services, including mobile broadband (MBB) and IoT.
FWA deployments can also reuse existing infrastructure such as main sites and towers that are already built, with most upgrades performed without need for site visits, unless new hardware is needed.
Governments around the world recognize the opportunities created by the 5G FWA market and the link between broadband penetration and economic growth; they are rolling out various programs and subsidies accordingly. The USA, for example, pioneered with the Connect America Fund (CAF l and CAF ll), followed by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the E-Rate program which allocated a USD 4.15b for school and library broadband services.
In Europe, National Recovery and Resilience Plans (NRRPs) were introduced in 2021 for post-Covid economic support. Initiatives to close the digital divide included 5G Infrastructure, Digital Skills, Digitalization in Public Services, and Business Digitalization.
However, the success and further growth of the 5G FWA market depends much on how well 5G leverages frequency spectrum. The key issue is that, while higher radio frequencies equate to improved WAN performance, they also bring new challenges, and a need to trade off radio signal frequency and transmission distance. Below, we look at how the 5G standard addresses these issues, and how network operators obtain access to radio spectrum to use for their 5G services.
Radio frequency vs. propagation distance: the 5G approach
Transmitting radio waves at low frequencies such as 700MHz allows very long distance propagation, with a good ability to penetrate obstacles such as buildings. However, lower frequencies mean lower data transmission rates.
Conversely, when 5G uses high frequency bands such as 3.4GHz it achieves much higher data rates, but with limited transmission distance, while buildings and walls become more impenetrable obstacles. At 3.6 – 4GHz, as also used by 5G, these positive and negative aspects become further emphasized. Nevertheless, these frequencies are all part of the 5G sub-6GHz band.
Even higher frequencies are becoming available. In the UK for example, Ofcom is freeing up spectrum in the 8GHz and 26GHz bands, and potentially in 32GHz and higher bands. Frequencies such as these, above 6GHz, are known as mmWave.
5G networks are mainly focused on sub-6GHz bands, because of the shorter transmission distance and lower penetration of mmWave. They accordingly use a mix of 700MHz and 3.4+GHz frequencies to provide an ‘always on’ connection with relatively fast data transfer.
Mobile network operators have obtained access to their spectrum of choice by bidding for it in a 5G spectrum auction. In Europe, these are organized by the Global Mobile Suppliers’ Association (GSA), and in the UK by Ofcom. The FCC handles 5G spectrum auctions in the US.
The spectrum bid covers both the nominal frequency and the bandwidth; In the UK for example, Vodafone won a spectrum with a bandwidth of 50MHz in the 3.4GHz band. The bandwidth size dictates the amount of data that can be transmitted per second.
How technology can drive 5G FWA market development
As demand grows, the bands used for mobile communications will not be wide enough to support future traffic needs. Some new and improved technical solutions are needed to make high frequency bands usable.
One straightforward way of improving sub 6GHz performance is to use an independent 5G antenna device – Teldat 5Ge ; a small, unobtrusive unit that can be positioned on a windowsill or anywhere with good 5G reception. This can be easily connected to a router in a poorer reception area via a single cable carrying Ethernet, plus Power over Ethernet (PoE) for power. These types of devices are also perfect for using 5G as a network resilience for fiber or other main lines when required.
Other developments include beamforming, which focuses the transmitted energy in the desired direction rather than broadcasting, to improve transmission efficiency and reduce interference.
Demand-adaptive cell technology allows system and traffic control channels to be transmitted on sites and resources optimized for coverage and robustness. Multi-X connectivity allows transmission from multiple sites and radio access technologies (RATs) to enable the use of higher-frequency bands. Cell edge users can more than double their data rates by being simultaneously connected to LTE and NR.
These methods of extending the use of high bands can increase data rates to 20/10Gbps download/upload.
Other methods are available to improve spectral and energy efficiency, and reduce cost per bit. For example, ultra lean design minimizes network transmissions not directly related to user data delivery. This reduces interference, and increases capacity, data rates and energy-efficiency. Multi-user MIMO involves using the narrow beams created by beamforming to transmit and receive data to and from multiple terminals using the same time and frequency resources.
Dynamically controlling transmission direction based on instantaneous load (Dynamic TDD) leads to a higher experienced data rate for end-users.
Another important way to improve 5G performance while mitigating propagation issues is to deploy extended mmWave. Such deployments call for good line-of-sight propagation between high tower radio sites, outdoor high power roof-mounted CPEs and radios, plus a new software innovation – mmWave extended range. The result, however, can be much longer mmWave cell ranges, of up to several kilometers rather than just hundreds of meters or less.
How are 5G FWA markets likely to evolve?
Because of the higher frequency propagation issues, there will likely be an ongoing role for both sub-6GHz and mmWave implementations. Sub-6GHz bands will continue as the most popular choices for most telecom operators, while mmWave will be predominantly utilized for data-showering hotspots such as packed stadiums or the real-time streaming and uploading of 4K/8K videos. Some operators may also use mmWave base stations to replace ‘fiber to home’, especially in situations where fiber expansion is limited.
However, penetration of mmWave is being slowed by Covid, which is keeping people away from areas where mmWave is best suited, such as sports stadiums and airports. This may eventually change as vaccines allow us to return to some type of normality. Impetus could also come from ‘killer apps’ such as remote surgery requiring ultra-low latency that could only be supported by mmWave.
5G FWA for enterprise and organizations
Teldat provides optimized engagement with the evolving 5G FWA landscape, with their all-in-one 5G FWA for enterprise and organizations solutions. Service providers can offer, and users can receive the same broadband functionalities as on cabled locations. Migration can be scheduled from LTE to 5G FWA in both NSA and SA modes.