Fixed Wireless Access explained
28 Jun 2023
What is FWA?
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is an innovative use case that uses 4G and 5G radio spectrum (the same as used for mobile phone services) to provide wireless broadband connectivity between two fixed points, for example a mobile network cell tower and a FWA device in a customer’s home.
As FWA technology is available for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, fixed network operators, mobile network operators, and converged operators can all benefit from FWA:
- To provide coverage where there is no fixed line or a poor fixed line service.
- To offer high-speed broadband in rural areas where the economics are difficult.
- To quickly build footprint and grab market share outside of their usual services or territory.
- To provide instant coverage to consumers at the tail end of a fiber rollout.
- To tactically seek out targets of opportunity within their footprint without worrying about full coverage.
Why is FWA important?
FWA broadband technology is an essential tool in bridging the digital divide.
Broadband connectivity is recognized as a vital enabler of economic and societal wellbeing and, increasingly, a significant contributor to environmental sustainability targets. Governments, communities, utilities, investors, and private network operators continue to invest heavily in connecting homes and businesses with fiber broadband as fiber is the best performing and most future-proof technology available.
However, deploying fiber can come at considerable cost and complexity in some circumstances, for example remote homesteads, rural communities, or centuries-old apartment buildings. In these cases, network operators need alternative technologies that can deliver broadband speeds without needing a physical fiber connection all the way into the home or building.
As FWA does not need a physical connection into a building, new geographies can be covered, and new customers can be connected, much more quickly and cheaply than with fiber.
FWA uses the radio network for the final link (often call “the last mile”) between the home/business and the core network.
Radio spectrum plays a vital role in FWA services: the different frequency bands and available spectrum determine the broadband speeds that can be delivered, the distance over which they can travel and, consequently, where and how FWA can be deployed.
If you think of a 4G mobile phone network, this commonly uses macrocells that serve many concurrent users. Each cell can typically send signals to a maximum distance of e.g. 500 meters in dense urban environments, but all the way up to 10-15 km in rural areas. Lower frequency bands propagate the furthest, but the compromise is lower speeds as there is less spectrum available. 4G can deliver peak speeds of 100 Mb/s but this is only under ideal conditions. Radio signals are shared between multiple users, and they degrade over distance, so actual sustained speeds are far lower on average. Nevertheless, 4G FWA is a good tool for providing broadband coverage in hard-to-reach areas, particularly rural.
5G in the mid-band spectrum (2 GHz – 6 GHz) is considered perfect for FWA. While still fitting the same footprint as 4G, it has up to 100 MHz of channel bandwidth and better spectral efficiency. This translates into more data and higher connection speeds. As such, mid-band spectrum is ideal for FWA, offering 10x the capacity of 4G. Operators worldwide are upgrading their networks to 5G for mobile services and also leveraging the increased capacity for FWA services.
There is another flavor of 5G that uses millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum e.g. from 24 GHz to 39GHz. The high frequencies give it exceptional capacity, translating into multi-Gigabit broadband speeds. However, signals in these frequencies are more susceptible to path loss from objects like trees and buildings, and even glass. However, the maturing 5G mmWave technology ecosystem and Nokia’s innovations are helping operators deliver Gigabit speeds over long distances and in non-line of sight conditions.
Unlicensed radio spectrum
Citizens Broadband Radio Service is a critical tool for rural broadband in the United States. 4G and 5G Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS - bands B48 & n48) takes mid-band spectrum and makes it available for any operator to use without a license. It operates in the 3.5 GHz band and can provide fast, affordable, high-speed internet access. Since the spectrum is unlicensed, everyone from network operators to school districts to small and medium businesses have unprecedented access to at least 80 MHz of mid-band spectrum to connect the unconnected.
Customer Premises Equipment
Many of us have used our mobile phones as hotspots. However, small, battery powered mobile devices have restricted performance capabilities. Mains powered Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) for FWA does not, connecting to the mobile network much more efficiently, saving valuable radio resources, and delivering higher speeds over greater distances. This efficiency is achieved with advanced antenna designs, dual connectivity, carrier aggregation (where multiple frequency bands are combined to provide more bandwidth and stability), and Multiple-Input Multiple-Output, known as MIMO, where multiple transmitting and receiving antennas are used to also increase capacity and stability.
With options for indoor gateways or indoor/outdoor receivers, FWA CPEs can be designed to be placed anywhere, capturing the best signal from the nearest mobile cell, and covering every type of urban, suburban, or rural deployment model.
Managing the FWA experience
4G and 5G technologies were, of course, designed for mobility where temporary degradation of service is more than compensated by the convenience of on-the-go connectivity. However, when used as a fixed broadband solution, customers expect 4G and 5G FWA to provide the same level of user experience as any other fixed broadband technology: no dropouts or throttling accepted.
Fixed wireless services, therefore, need to be carefully managed to keep service levels up and costs down. This is dependent on a number of factors: distance between the CPE and the nearest cell site, the number of users being served by each cell and the attenuation through obstacles. In all cases, operators must work to ensure the best possible customer experience.
This presents a need for management tools that ensure planning and delivery of the best possible FWA broadband experience:
- At the point of sale, predict the speed that a given home would receive based on its location.
- Automatically manage connections between FWA CPE and cell sites to ensure that congestion can be mitigated before customers notice.
- Manage the number of FWA subscribers on a cell to ensure that mobile services are not compromised.
- Take advantage of virtual network slicing to separate 5G use cases and ensure a consistent experience. For example, separate virtual network slices for residential broadband and mobile services where each slice is optimized for the best performance and capped for predictable service.
- Use smart phone applications to make self-installation and maintenance a breeze.
Benefits to end users
Most consumers don’t care about the broadband technology connecting their homes: they are simply looking for a fast and reliable service that enables them to work, play and learn on any device, at any time. Those millions of customers currently on old copper and cable networks who struggle with sub-50 Mb/s services would welcome an alternative. Fixed Wireless Access delivers on all counts.
Also, most consumers today appreciate being able to self-serve. For broadband, this means being able to install a new home device and service themselves, at their leisure, instead of having to wait for a technician to do it for them. The no-wires aspect of FWA makes this simple. LED indicators on the CPE and/or a mobile phone app are used to guide a customer on the perfect installation position of their FWA device. This delivers a satisfying experience not unlike that of buying and setting up a new speaker, tablet or other broadband appliance in their home.
Many customers also appreciate the convenience and cost-savings of bundled offers. Mobile and converged operators can provide fixed broadband and mobile phone bundles that deliver more value and lower bills to their customers, giving them a competitive edge.
Nokia and FWA
As you would expect with our history, Nokia is a global leader in 4G and 5G mobile technology and we have applied this expertise to our Fixed Wireless Access solutions. Our FastMile FWA products are designed with the consumer in mind: they are visually appealing, self-installable in many cases, and deliver the best service possible to and inside the home.
At Nokia, we create technology that helps the world act together.
As a B2B technology innovation leader, we are pioneering networks that sense, think, and act by leveraging our work across mobile, fixed and cloud networks. In addition, we create value with intellectual property and long-term research, led by the award-winning Nokia Bell Labs.
Service providers, enterprises and partners worldwide trust Nokia to deliver secure, reliable and sustainable networks today – and work with us to create the digital services and applications of the future.
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