Fixed 5G is less high on the agenda than in the US, but may be a way for operators to fill broadband gaps, especially in the last few meters, or as an alternative to fiber for mobile-centric players. A more central aspect of 5G planning will relate to wireline fixed links, which will be more important than ever because of 5G’s higher capacity and higher density requirements for backhaul; and the need for very high capacity, low latency fronthaul links.
In addition, most operators in developed economies are moving towards offering fixed/mobile and quad play bundles, which means they will be investing in fixed line networks, directly or through partners.
Many MNOs in Europe say they are evaluating FWA as a way to deliver those bundles, at lower capex cost (though the opex economics are less clear). In the UK, infrastructure provider Arqiva recently acquired mmWave spectrum in the 28 GHz band in London and carried out demonstrations of a potential wholesale 5G fixed network, working with Samsung.
The need for fiber is also opening up opportunities both for Openreach, and for alternative wholesale fiber providers. For instance, Vodafone has announced a strategic deal with CityFibre, under which it will fund the smaller firm’s expansion in return for exclusive access to its fiber for consumer broadband purposes. The pair will jointly invest £500m in the initial phase of the project, which will take gigabit broadband to one million premises by 2021. Vodafone will guarantee to lease at least 20% of the lines and will have exclusive access during the build phase.
This could help Vodafone build up a consumer quad play offering – and support backhaul for small cells – without the expense of buying a cable operator, as it has in Germany (where it acquired Kabel Deutschland) and other markets. In the UK, it did buy Cable & Wireless Worldwide, but that is focused mainly on the enterprise market and has limited residential coverage.
For CityFibre, it will bring the means to accelerate its city-by-city roll-out and fund its planned expansion into consumer fiber – its current business, which will still be open to other customers, is focused on backhaul, fronthaul and city networks. Vodafone says the new alliance will bring fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) to one million UK homes by 2021 and 5m by 2025.
Rising competition in fiber, coupled with stepped-up investment by Openreach and Virgin Media, are welcome to provide an enhanced grid to support fixed/mobile convergence and dense 5G – both of which can help make operators more profitable, and enable new services for consumers and businesses.
Meanwhile, the excitement around FWA as a likely first application for 5G is being tempered by rising awareness of its limitations. It may be cheaper than pulling fiber, especially in rural areas, but its operating costs may often be higher (more maintenance, in particular, and ongoing site leasing).
And while FWA has traditionally been a rural play, there are also doubts about 5G’s suitability in this environment. Tod Sizer, VP of the wireless research program at Nokia Bell Labs, told a recent 5G Transport event that the technology is suitable for cities and dense suburban areas, but “the idea of this solving the rural problem is folly. There are too many trees.” Foliage is a major problem for signals in bands such as 26 GHz and 28 GHz, which are set to be commonly adopted high frequency bands for 5G worldwide.
More words of warning about the limitations of FWA as a fiber alternative came from CableLabs, the US cable sector’s R&D arm, in a new report co-authored with set-top box maker Arris. It is called ‘Can a Fixed Wireless Last 100m Connection Really Compete with a Wired Connection and Will 5G Really Enable this Opportunity?’ and examines a range of fixed 5G scenarios, using different bands (from 3.5 GHz CBRS to 70 GHz) as well as line of sight and non-line of sight deployments, and different types of walls or foliage.
Cablecos have been showing strong interest in 5G FWA, both as a weapon for potential rivals, but also as a way to extend their own fixed broadband reach cost-effectively. However, the report urges caution. “We have come a long way in the drive to 5G—but as the saying goes, there is still a long way to go,” it concludes. “As cable operators move fiber deeper, going to an all passive coax network, the ability to deliver multiple Gbps of capacity to a single home seems an easier path than building out a FWA mmWave architecture.”
The report highlights challenges such as interference, coverage, backhaul and deployment obstacles, which will offset the strong speeds and potentially capex efficiency of 5G. It predicts that fixed 5G might be helpful to support apartment blocks, or to provide a quick way to build out a new area until fiber could be added.