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What You Need to Know About Terrestrial Fixed Wireless

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Image: Tuomas Lehtinen - Alamy Stock Photo
In the first three parts of this series on fixed wireless access alternatives, we have looked at the overall challenges in expanding broadband access, the options from the cellular carriers, and the emerging satellite options. Here we will focus on the fixed-wireless options that are purpose-built for delivering residential and small business broadband access.
 
Despite the fact that these pure fixed wireless technology solutions have about the longest history of any of the FWA options on the table, they receive the least coverage and appear to have the smallest market share. The one surprising factor I am discovering as I research this area more deeply, is the impact that the array of government subsidies for expanded broadband access is having on the market, and particularly on the technologies that will be funded. At the moment, those subsidies appear to be favoring fiber-based solutions over these fixed wireless options that are purpose built for delivering residential and small business broadband access.
 
The first real effort at developing a market for fixed wireless technology came around the turn of this century when AT&T promoted an experimental wireless local loop technology called Project Angel. That led to the development of Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX), an IEEE standard (not a 3GPP cellular standard) for fixed wireless that had a brief run at stardom early in this century.
 
The biggest WiMAX proponent in the U.S. was Sprint, which (at the time) was sitting on a significant swath of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band (i.e., about 100 MHz nationwide). T-Mobile acquired Sprint in 2020, the mid-band spectrum T-Mobile is now using to roll out 5G. Sprint entered a convoluted partnership with Clearwire Communications to market a WiMAX-based service in 2007, but the idea failed to catch on, and the whole operations was shut down in 2015. This was not an auspicious start to the pure-play FWA market.
 
I bring up WiMAX because many of the vendors driving this market today are direct descendants (through acquisitions, mergers, name changes, etc.) of the companies that built WiMAX or WiMAX-like products.
 
This legacy has left us with a highly fragmented market incorporating any number of competing technologies and vendor proprietary solutions being sold by a large number of relatively small operators, each serving random sections of the most sparsely populated areas. These operators are represented through the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), which claims 800 members. The website Broadband Now lists 1792 fixed wireless providers in the U.S. offering maximum speeds ranging from 1 Mbps to 1 Gbps.
 
It is important to note that some of the WISPs listed offer broadband internet exclusively, while other also sell cable TV and voice services. That latter group typically operate mixed networks with fiber and coaxial cable facilities along with fixed wireless. The first thing to prepare for is that the service options available for residential and SMB broadband access will be defined by the specific locale.
 
Infinite Variety In Small Doses
If there is one feature that characterizes the pure play fixed wireless market, it’s variety. Since WiMAX imploded, there have been no standards for how a fixed wireless network should work, so the manufacturers all went off in their own proprietary directions. Some private 5G proponents are pushing systems that use 4G or 5G cellular standards operating on the CBRS band, while others run on proprietary systems operating in the 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, or 5 and 6 GHz unlicensed bands, and some are using millimeter wave bands (e.g., 37 GHz).
 
The one factor distinguishes these purpose-built FWA solutions from the cellular carriers’ FWA offerings is that most of the purpose-built systems incorporate an outdoor antenna at the subscriber end. These operators recognize the challenge of delivering a reliable signal and are opting for solutions that allow them to serve the largest number of these widely-scattered subscribers reliably.
 
Here are three of the solutions potential providers can choose from:
 
Airspan: I’ve written about Airspan before as they are a supplier of Open RAN and small cell products for private 5G; they are a partner for Cisco and others for private 5G providers. Airspan acquired Mimosa Networks, a company with a 13-year WiMAX history, in 2018. Airspan still markets the Mimosa point-to-multipoint (P2MP) fixed wireless platform that uses Wi-Fi 6e (IEEE 802.11ax) in the unlicensed 5 G and lowers 6 GHz bands. Mimosa claims a single access point can deliver up to 7 Gbps of shared capacity supporting over 200 subscribers.
 
Cambium Networks: Cambium is another veteran of the WiMAX campaign, taking on the Canopy line of point-to-point (P2P) and P2MP radio equipment that was spun off from Motorola Solutions. Canopy was Motorola Solution’s pre-standard WiMAX fixed wireless solution, and the platform was reportedly used by Clearwire. Systems operate on a variety of unlicensed frequencies, including 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz, and boast operating line-of-sight ranges up to 24 kilometers.
 
Tarana Wireless: Tarana is a start-up in the fixed wireless space that is in pilot with its Gigabit 1 (G1) solution, which it bills as next-generation FWA (ngFWA). The initial G1 platform operates in either the unlicensed 5 GHz band or the US CBRS 3.5 GHz band. Operating in the CBRS band, the platform supports shared data rates up to 800 Mbps out to about a kilometer and a somewhat shorter distance at 5GHz.
 
Clearly, the WISP industry has been struggling to establish a foothold, and now, some in that camp appear to be ready to chuck it all and morph into Fiber First ISPs (FFISPs). What is pushing their hand is the government broadband funding, which is now favoring fiber over FWA for expanding broadband access. This shift toward fiber-based providers might help explain the FCC’s surprising move to rescind RDOF funding for SpaceX’s Starlink.
 
Many FWA providers are also in the cable TV and voice businesses and already use a combination of fiber, coaxial cable, and fixed wireless delivery mechanisms. This reprioritization of government funding will likely affect their expansion plans. For its part, the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), whose members include the three Tier 1 cellular carriers and many of their infrastructure partners, is working to steer more government largesse towards fixed wireless.
 
While the introduction of competition into the communications markets late in the last century has delivered the most phenomenal burst of innovation we have ever experienced, you have to wonder where things go if government funding decisions are now picking winners and losers in our technology.
 
What Does an FWA Deployment Look Like?
The specifics of any fixed wireless deployment will be dictated by the particular vendor solution the provider decides to use. While we have thousands of providers and at least a half dozen technology platforms to choose from (including the ones outlined above), there are a few central elements in common in an FWA deployment.
 
• Head End Facility(ies): The head end hosts the shared internet connection(s), along with the equipment that operates the radio access network connecting to the subscribers. The head end also connect to the test, monitoring and troubleshooting facilities. Today, many of the network control and troubleshooting functions are cloud-based.
 
Most systems have a clear sight reach of a several miles and considerably less with non-line of sight (NLOS). That range is also impacted by the frequency used, with lower frequency yielding the greatest range. Terrain characteristics like hills also have a major effect. In a small deployment, a single head end might suffice, but for larger areas, a number of distributed head ends (i.e., cells) would be required. Like current cellular networks, larger networks can use directional antennas to divide coverage areas into sectors, and operators build or buy fiber or P2P microwave links to connect to distributed head ends.
 
• Subscriber Equipment: To ensure compatibility with the head end, the provider generally supplies the subscriber with equipment that includes the radio, a router, and a Wi-Fi access point; some also include ethernet interfaces for hardwired connections. The key differentiator is the antenna, which is typically designed to be installed outside and pointed at the head end. The use of outdoor antennas can provide a significant boost in signal strength. The key determining factor is the range and bit rate the connection will be able to support. The goal of the operator is to get a good signal to as many people as possible from the head end, and an outdoor antenna is a key part of that plan.
 
Nokia is an exception in that its solution supports both indoor and optional outdoor antennas. The company’s website also has a video promoting an indoor antenna solution for millimeter wave transmissions. Yeah, maybe, but placing the antenna behind a wall is not going to make this thing work any better.
 
• Multi-Tenant Installation: While some WISPs have targeted the single-family home market, others, like Starry and Towerstream, are targeting apartment buildings and managed developments, as well as office towers. Those solutions feature a multi-tenant device that would receive the signal from the head end and interconnect to whatever type of in-building distribution system exists (e.g. coaxial cable, Wi-Fi).
 
In these multitenant installations, the antenna is always located outdoors. This is what allows carriers like Starry to use 37 GHz millimeter wave transmissions capable of delivering over 5 Gbps of shared capacity.
 
How Do Enterprise IT Buyers Deal With This?
When you work in networking, many decisions you face about provider services are pretty much cut and dried. We have an existing supplier that can provide what we need. They operate in the area we need to serve, we have a negotiated price and contract in place with them, and their overall performance has been at least ‘decent.’ We’re going with them.
 
However, companies today often decide to build facilities in all sorts of out of the way places for lots of very good business reasons like energy costs, access to labor, tax breaks, etc.; unfortunately, availability of broadband network access often isn’t on that list. Also, with work from home becoming the new normal, we might be called upon to assist employees in establishing home offices in some of these areas. If you are building a major facility, the providers will be fall over themselves to get involved, but there can be lots of locations where your facility is just another small fish in a small pond.
 
Coming up with a good solution in these cases takes some additional leg work. There are many online sources, but the best source I often find is the people who live in the area. Your local employees likely have broadband at home, so they will have a good idea of what’s available along with some strong feelings about the service quality.
 
There is a very good chance you will be working with a provider you never heard of, so checking references will be important in understanding what you can expect. Also, since if you are not dealing with the big three (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon), a review of the provider’s financial stability would be useful.
 
In the end, you might find there is only one choice (for now), and by any objective measure, it’s not a very good one. As I like to say, “you play the cards you’re dealt,” but you also give the user a clear-eyed perspective of what they could encounter. It is also imperative that you have some plan for what you do in the event that this undesirable choice blows up on you. Hopefully, you won’t have to resort to locating which public libraries in the area have the best Wi-Fi.
 
There are a couple of rays of hope in all of this. First, the proposed low-earth orbit satellite solutions like Starlink, Kuiper, and the rest are poised to launch. They could provide an all-encompassing solution to broadband access with at least ‘decent’ performance (e.g., 100 M x 20 Mbps Down/Upstream). For now, those remain in the “very promising but still unproven” category.
 
If the satellite solutions do prove viable, they will likely have a long-term role to play. I can see no scenario where every subject property of Discovery Go’s Homestead Rescue is miraculously fiber-connected. However, if government funding is channeled primarily to fiber-based providers, the satellite options will have to pay their own way to profitability.
 
In the meantime, we’ve already seen multimillion-dollar fraud in these government programs. So, you better hope that whoever builds in your area is in it for the long haul and not pushing a get-rich-quick scheme to fund an early and comfortable retirement.
 
Enterprise network designers are put in an uncomfortable spot if a management decision is made to open an operation in an area that doesn’t have the network services required to support a modern distributed business. I’ve had to wrestle with these kinds of problems all over the world. What you learn over time is most installations are routine, but there are situations where you really have to work to find a solution.
 

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.

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