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Fixed Wireless Access gets a massive boost from Qualcomm

Fixed wireless access (FWA) is definitely hot again!!! FWA has already had a couple of adoption cycles in the past but it is now being touted as one of the primary use cases for 5G and the one that will be one of the earliest to deploy. Much of the early adoption has been in the sub-6 GHz bands with operators like Optus (Australia) and Sunrise (Switzerland); in the high mmWave bands where vendors like Siklu, Cambridge Networks, and Infinet Wireless have deployed solutions. The only mid-band mmWave deployment to date has been the much-touted Verizon 5G Home service.

Despite a lot of initial hype, the pace of FWA rollout has been slow. Turns out that the “build it and they will come” strategy doesn’t always pan out, especially if there aren’t enough affordable devices with designs that can be deployed around the world in multiple configurations of frequency bands. Indeed, barely a quarter after the initial 5G Home launch, Verizon backpedaled, effectively noting that FWA would have to wait until devices became available. Devices weren’t available because the relevant chipsets were not available. No longer.

It takes a village!

At this year’s 5G Summit, held in Barcelona, Qualcomm made a whopper of an announcement that will significantly boost prospects for FWA adoption around the world. Qualcomm announced the availability of its first 5G customer premise equipment (CPE) reference design for sub-6 GHz and mmWave FWA products. The reference design is based on the second generation of the Snapdragon X55 5G modem and the Qualcomm RF Front End (RFFE) components and modules, making this a true “modem to antenna” solution. Speaking of antennas, the solution also incorporates the recently announced QTM527 antenna module which extends the range of the mmWave signal up to 1.7 km in rural settings and 1.1 km in urban areas. Qualcomm’s simulations have shown that if unobstructed, the mmWave signals could go even longer.

The product specs of the reference design will ensure that any OEM ecosystem partner who is looking to deploy FWA CPEs can now, in a cost-effective manner, mix and match the various frequency combinations that will be needed for deployment across diverse global markets without the need for multiple SKUs. The reference design has been chosen by over 30 OEM partners, highlighting the huge ecosystem that Qualcomm has been engaged with to create a major point of differentiation over competitive silicon offerings. These include industry players across the spectrum from Nokia and Samsung to Inseego to Oppo, Fibocom, Casa Systems and a host of others. The reference design will help these OEMs roll out CPE devices that can be self-installed and plug and play. Nokia is one example of a vendor that has already announced a new version of the FastMile 5G Gateway for indoor deployments.

Moreover, Qualcomm has also announced an integrated reference design for FWA home gateways that include both 5G as well as WiFi 6 connectivity. Specifically, the solution integrates both the X55 based 5G Modem-RF solution as well as the Qualcomm Networking Pro 1200 platform. By offering a combo of 5G and WiFi 6, devices based on Qualcomm’s new reference design will now be able to take on the traditional products (DSL etc) in the home broadband segment and enable a clear substitute to today’s mix of offerings from ISPs and cable providers.

Fixed Wireless Access will revolutionize the last mile

Qualcomm’s announcement of reference designs for FWA that incorporate both 5G and WiFi 6, backed by the huge ecosystem of OEM partners that are designing CPE devices for launch, will create the favorable conditions that are needed to finally revolutionize the last mile problem. In a previously published note, we had opined that for FWA to gain widespread traction, there were two open questions that had to be resolved.

“There are two big open questions in our opinion that will determine the success and scale of the fixed wireless opportunity. The first one revolves around the economics of installation. While FWA promises lower capex for the telco due to the avoidance of expensive fiber deployments at the last mile, FWA will still need truck rolls and installation at present, which represent continued opex. To get around this challenge, vendors like NetComm Wireless and Nokia announced “self-install” gateway routers, with sleek CPE designs complemented by mobile apps that can help consumers identify the correct placement area for the CPE. While service providers can never hope to eliminate truck rolls, the self-install CPE designs are encouraging and will go some way towards solving this problem. The second question revolves around the cost of the CPE device itself. While there were several CPE vendors exhibiting at the show, none of them have the volumes to match large scale mobile network deployments due to a single market or niche deployments. As a result, the CPE costs are not exactly competitive.”

Fixed broadband solutions to the home have long been touted as the ideal solution but, the level of deployment on the ground has been patchy as fixed broadband providers have suffered from the “twin capex” problem.

“Connecting dense urban neighborhoods means acquiring permits and licenses for the RoW to employ construction crews to skilled engineers for planning and installation. The denser the urban area, the higher the cost, and the higher the prevalence of multi-dwelling units (MDUs), the higher the cost. This is especially true for older buildings where the requisite cabling and ducts are not in place, with a retrofit typically becoming costly. On the other hand, if the focus is on connecting suburban, rural, and remote areas, the SP will still run into high capex costs. Depending on the country in question, it can run into tremendous distances, which will increase the cost of laying fiber. The per capita cost of a fiber pass to a small town or village is much higher, and the business case rarely holds up as the SP can’t reliably be assured of reliable demand and ROI.”

With the advent of 5G FWA CPEs, the economics improve significantly. Not only will ISPs and cable providers not need to obtain expensive rights of way, permits, and licenses, they will also not have to incur the costs of civil work to dig across their coverage areas. This has always been one of the key challenges for the home broadband segment. Now, with 5G FWA CPEs, the cost of backhauling the data traffic decreases tremendously. Whether the operator has sub-6 GHz spectrum or mmWave, the Qualcomm reference design will enable high-speed connectivity back to the network. With the ability to extend the mmWave signal, the CPEs can connect over distances up to 1.7 km in a rural setting.

The implications are enormous. For the first time, the major impediments to universal home broadband have been addressed and multiple objectives for FWA will start to be realized. Not only will these new FWA devices address the Next Billion segment and hook them up to cost-effective broadband, but they will also increase the addressable market for operators. For example, mobile operators can now offer broadband services to the home segment, which is a new revenue stream. They can also offer broadband services to venues, campuses and enterprise locations that were previously underserved.

What can we expect?

We will be keenly watching this space as we expect a raft of product announcements from OEMs towards the end of 2019 and through the first half of 2020. In parallel, we will also see several communication service providers (CSPs) who have launched or been conducting trials of FWA, announce commercial deployments that are significant in scale. For example, Verizon has already stated publicly that they are looking to expand their “5G Home” FWA service to 30 markets across the United States in 2020. In Asia, there will likely be FWA deployments at scale in markets like China, Australia, and others.

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