US mobile operators need to use existing infrastructure in apartment buildings to speed up returns on fixed wireless deployments, and the Broadband Forum is working on facilitating that.

The industry body on Wednesday unveiled a new project to enable easier deployment of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services as a fixed broadband replacement in multi-dwelling units. The Fixed Wireless Access Extension project focuses on faster, more efficient and cheaper deployment of the technology through the reuse of in-building cabling, which will naturally have a knock-on effect on operator business cases.

It’s a timely initiative, with FWA emerging as an early use case for 5G in the US. Most of the 5G headlines still come from telcos keen to crow about their network coverage or speed, but they are also working on their FWA services.

T-Mobile US has been particularly vocal in its intention to take on big broadband players with FWA and late last year made bold claims about the number of FWA customers it expects itself and rival Verizon to have by the end of 2025: somewhere between 11 million and 13 million apparently, With a strong fixed broadband presence, AT&T has made less noise about its FWA offering, but it’s at it too.

According to Leichtman Research Group, the top broadband providers in the US added around 3.5 million subscribers last year, with FWA accounting for a massive 90% of the total, up from 20% of net adds in 2021. Meanwhile, Ericsson’s latest mobility report, published last month, noted that globally more than 100 operators have launched FWA services over 5G and predicted that 5G will account for almost 80% of all FWA connections worldwide by 2028.

“Mobile operators are investing heavily to acquire spectrum space and base station infrastructure,” said Helge Tiainen, of InCoax Networks, a Broadband Forum member. “They then seek a fast return on investment by turning DSL customers into 5G FWA subscribers. By using the cabling already available in the building, it will save operators’ time and money, and give consumers a better broadband experience,” he said.

“This project will have a huge impact on how telco operators can deploy 5G FWA connections in metropolitan areas,” Tiainen added, highlighting the importance of solving the “MDU reachability challenge” now broadband players have started rolling out infrastructure.

Enabling operators to use existing in-building infrastructure, like phone wiring or coax cable, will help them extend 5G-based FWA into each apartment in a block, thereby overcoming some of the technical challenges they face. These include the difficulties associated with transmitting mmWave signals through walls and the related signal attenuation which can make coverage unreliable or even impossible. And there are also challenges related to the installation of FWA modems on rooftops and not only the cost of rolling out Ethernet cable to each apartment, but also the logistical issue of finding the space for one modem per apartment and the technical challenges associated with RF separation and interference.

“We have launched this project to bring tangible benefits to operators and make the rapid and efficient delivery of multi-gigabit connectivity for residents and building owners a very real possibility,” said Christele Bouchat, Nokia and Wireless Wireline Convergence Work Area Co-Director at Broadband Forum.

That has to be good news for telcos aiming to make the most of their hefty 5G spectrum and infrastructure investments.

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