Things have been looking up for fixed wireless access (FWA) for some time now. Indeed, by the end of 2022, FWA is not only thriving, it’s playing a starring role in 5G. It hasn’t always been this way. In earlier iterations, FWA didn’t pan out for mobile operators. But in more recent years and with 5G, the consumer premise equipment (CPE) has seen notable improvements, new spectrum is adding to the available capacity and demand is going through the roof.
In fact, over the last year, the broadband industry’s growth has come almost entirely from fixed wireless, according to T-Mobile’s 2022 State of Fixed Wireless report. The “un-carrier” identified one of the big factors driving FWA’s growth: Consumer hatred toward their cable companies. Traditional ISPs rank dead last in customer satisfaction among all industries, and customers are just plain hungry for alternatives.
Of course, cable companies aren’t rolling over, and one can expect them to ramp up the rhetoric against FWA. Comcast recently launched a website and series of ads dedicated to disparaging T-Mobile’s 5G Home Internet service, claiming the service slows down during heavy network daytime usage. Wave7 Research has reported that Cox also is doing some TV advertising critical of T-Mobile Home Internet.
Cable companies have reason to react, according to T-Mobile. Among their reasons for switching, T-Mobile customers cite a lower price and no annual contract as leading factors. But more than a third also listed having a new option as a reason for switching. Currently, more than half of T-Mobile’s base of 2 million+ FWA customers are coming from cable.
Another reason mobile operators like FWA: It’s a little bit like “free money,” in the sense they’re using the same networks already built for mobile. If it doesn’t cost them a lot more infrastructure-wise to offer a fixed access service alongside mobile, what have they got to lose?
As for speeds, T-Mobile delivers average speeds of 145 Mbps and peak speeds over 1 Gbps in some areas. Verizon offers three tiers that range from 1 Gbps download on millimeter wave to 50 Mbps on LTE.
What about capacity?
Whether triggered by cable’s criticisms or just plain physics, a question that regularly comes up is if the mobile operators have enough capacity to continue satisfying customers. After all, there’s a limit to how much capacity operators have, and 5G home internet customers typically use a lot more bandwidth than your average mobile data user.
Both T-Mobile and Verizon executives insist that they have enough capacity. T-Mobile is gauging its resources and not everyone is eligible to sign up for its Home Internet service. Over the summer, it also started offering a Lite version of its service with data caps so that more people who want an alternative to cable can get it.
In early December, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg told investors that the company expects to have no capacity problems on its network and could even have more than 5 million FWA customers by the end of 2025 if it wants to. It’s currently servicing more than 1 million.
T-Mobile and Verizon aren’t the only mobile carriers involved in FWA. AT&T has experimented with various technologies over the years. Earlier this year, EVP Chris Sambar told Fierce that AT&T has about 500,000 fixed wireless subscribers. But now it’s clearly focused on fiber, with plans to reach 30 million households with fiber by the end of 2025.
The regional carrier UScellular also offers FWA. The majority of its FWA customers this year were using its low-band offering and LTE. But the operator launched millimeter wave for FWA in 10 cities, and it’s looking to use its mid-band spectrum for home internet services as well. For UScellular, which has seen its postpaid phone customer base dwindle, FWA is a bright spot.
That’s not the case for Starry, a pioneer in the fixed wireless space that went to market with an innovative IEEE-based technology and appeared to have all the markings of success. But by the fall of 2022, it laid off half of its staff and quit expanding into new markets. By November, it was looking for a buyer or financial partner to keep it afloat.
For now, the big FWA players are T-Mobile and Verizon. T-Mobile plans to serve 7 million to 8 million FWA subscribers by the end of 2025. Verizon expects to serve about 4 million to 5 million fixed wireless customers within a similar timeframe. If 2023 continues to go their way, they just might beat those goals by a country mile.
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