Fixed Wireless Access: Myths around the Last Mile

Thanks to recent innovations in unlicensed Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technology, the UK is in a unique position to benefit from 5G Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB).

Historically, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been discouraged from delivering full Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) due to the expense of the ‘last mile’ connection. This has had a tangible impact on consumers – only 4% of UK premises have access to fibre.

However, the UK Government has now identified a strategic requirement for nationwide Gbit levels of connectivity, to be delivered by an accelerated fibre roll-out. Some subsidies have been provided to help kickstart the development of this national fibre infrastructure, and huge investments are now being made as fibre companies rush to claim territorial ownership. Capex costs, estimated to be more than £25bn, are nevertheless prompting investors and the wider industry to ask questions about how payback – which has traditionally been slow – can be accelerated.

One option now emerging for the UK’s well-funded Alternative Network Providers is to participate in the 5G eMBB revolution by using low-cost, unlicensed mmWave FWA technology. This is especially appealing considering that by 2025 copper needs to be switched off and that by 2033, all UK residents have been promised fibre connections in the home.

What is FWA?

In the UK, FWA is generally categorised as low-bandwidth rural technology (100Mbps), using bands below 6GHz. Its potential to go well beyond this and deliver fibre-like gigabit levels of performance, however, is now being widely recognised. This is already true in the United States, where unlicensed mmWave FWA is considered a budget alternative to fibre.

How does mmWave FWA work and why is it effective?

Traditional FWA deployments operate by using macro (or small cell) stations. These function as wide area wireless hubs – similar to home WiFi points – emitting omnidirectionally, and sharing their resource across multiple homes. mmWave FWA operates using narrow ‘line of sight’ (LOS) wireless beams; high performance “invisible cables”, which are dedicated to each home.

At the source of this beam is a Distribution Network (DN) node connected to the main fibre network, which provides multiple beams and is designed to support multiple homes. This is know as Point to Multi-Point (PtMP) technology which is both cheap and small enough to be built into lampposts and other street furniture.

Diagram FWA

The multiple home users require a Client Node (CN) to connect to the DN – and then the fibre that these are connected to. As these DNs and CNs are configurations of the same technology, they are ideal for delivering low-cost Gbit broadband connections over a wide area to streets and small businesses. Since the infrastructure is wireless, there is no need for expensive digs to lay cables.

Exploring reservations about FWA

There are clear benefits to the adoption of this unlicensed mmWave 5G technology, however past variants of the technology have left some reservations in the industry:

Line of Sight connection vulnerability: In the rare cases that unobstructed links are not possible, additional units can be quickly added at minimal cost to bend around any obstructions. When blockages are transitory (e.g. buses) or seasonal (e.g. tree foliage), we can exploit the advantages of dynamically configured mesh networking (see below).

Perceptions of unreliability: mmWave Wireless LOS PtMP technology is uniquely capable of being formed into meshes, providing multiple routes for traffic dependant on the condition of the individual links. Using software-controlled self-organising network (SON) technology, this mesh network can dynamically reconfigure itself to use the optimal path for traffic. This ability to self-repair dramatically increases the networks reliability – something that a wired network cannot replicate.

Support of Carrier Grade connections: The telco industry has long sought after low-cost connections which can provide carrier grade backhaul to 4G or 5G small cells. Blu Wireless’s mmWave technology has been designed to provide this capability overlaid on the primary need for high-speed Gbit broadband. As a result, ISPs are able to offer ‘neutral hosting’ to mobile operators for either addressing ‘not spots’ or facilitating the deployment of ultra-dense small cells or Wi-Fi hotspots.

Busting the myths around FWA

As well as these reservations, there remain several outright myths about FWA which act as unnecessary blockers to the wider adoption of this technology.

The most common ones are:

Myth: “mmWave FWA is complex to deploy”

Early generations of mmWave technologies used beams, formed by using fixed high gain antennas that required time-consuming installation and costly maintenance. New mmWave technology is electrically self-aligning, installing and optimising, making installation seamless and robust.

Myth: “Gbit FWA is expensive”

report by the National Infrastructure Commission estimates that in an urban area with major conurbation, by reusing fibre connections to the cabinet the cost of installing modern unlicensed mmWave FWA for the last 100m is between one third and one fifth of the cost of a full fibre deployment.

The Future of the Market

With the growing appetite to deploy a pervasive network capable of delivering multi-Gigabit connectivity to all customers in the UK and beyond, we need to consider the tools required to achieve this in a timely and cost-effective manner.

We believe mmWave has the potential to play a pivotal role in this 5G future by enabling a reliable, cost-effective and high-speed solution that is complementary to the ‘backbone’ provided by the core fibre network.

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