5G Fixed Wireless Access at MWC 2024

This year was my first experience of MWC, and it was definitely a whirlwind. There was so much to see, but even just walking around the stands, fixed wireless access seemed to be a talking point, and everyone wants to be a part of the action.

Although 5G fixed wireless access is still in its early stages, lots of operators are keen to implement the technology to complement a portfolio of traditional broadband access methods. It provides operators with a way to generate revenue from their investments in 5G infrastructure and spectrum bands. And the improvements offered by 5G-Advanced will make fixed wireless access a more competitive broadband technology that eclipses the performance of existing services based on LTE.

Currently, 79% of fixed wireless connections are LTE, but we expect this proportion to dwindle by 2027. By then, 5G will become more prominent, growing from 18 million connections today to 148 million. CCS Insight’s Spotlight Report: Fixed Wireless Access, December 2023 has full data, analysis and forecasts for this growing market.

However, the speed of uptake will be governed by challenges such as the high cost of 5G customer premises equipment, and variations in reliability and quality of service that stem from getting high-frequency signals to reach indoor locations. Signals used by the outdoor network penetrate indoors poorly, creating a variable and sometimes frustrating experience. Operators are less likely to encourage the adoption of fixed wireless access when they can offer a more stable connection through wired broadband technology, like cable or fibre.

In Barcelona, I noted three products from Airgain, pureLiFi and ZTE that aim to overcome these issues.

Airgain was showing its recently released Smart Lantern, which it markets as the first hybrid beamforming equipment for the fixed wireless access market. This indoor solution automatically identifies the direction of the best received and transmitted signal from a nearby 5G base station. By simplifying the set-up process it avoids the cost and time of a professional installation. Airgain argues that its approach delivers considerably better indoor performance than other customer premises equipment by combining the best of both worlds, indoor and outdoor, because it offers the performance of an external antenna in an indoor-only solution.

Eliminating the need for professional installation will make this type of connectivity more accessible to consumers — an important factor in widening this market. Quick and easy self-installation is an important selling point of fixed wireless access. By contrast, new fibre services usually require professional installation as well as the home being in an area covered by a fibre network.

pureLiFi takes a different approach that uses light frequencies for wireless communications. The solution avoids potential saturation and congestion of radio frequencies that limit speeds, for example on the unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi. At MWC, the company showed off the LINXC Bridge, a collaboration between it and Solace Power. When the device is mounted on a window, pureLiFi claims it supplies performance comparable to outdoor customer premises equipment. Again, the LINXC Bridge aims to overcome not only the weak indoor penetration of cellular signals but also capitalize on an easy installation process that doesn’t require a visit from an engineer.

The author experiencing pureLiFi LINXC Bridge at MWC 2024

ZTE unveiled the G5 Ultra, a Wi-Fi 7 device that uses artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms for its antennas to achieve a claimed 20% faster data rate in weak signal scenarios and a 25% wider signal coverage. ZTE touts its leadership in implementing AI technologies to provide a stronger signal, as well as to create a faster connection by minimizing congestion and reducing the impact of low bandwidth. As fixed wireless access continues to evolve, AI will help improve the user experience and so advance adoption of this type of connectivity.

In many of my conversations at MWC, there was a lot of mention of the US and the current adoption and further potential for fixed wireless access there. In its MWC presentation, Verizon emphasized its early successes in fixed wireless access and the rapid uptake compared with other broadband technologies.

Markets in the Middle East and Africa, and India hold considerable potential owing to their large populations in rural areas. These areas are typically underserved by existing types of broadband connectivity — especially wired — and operators often struggle to recoup investment costs in rural wired broadband as rural users generally have lower average spending and the distances can be vast. Fixed wireless access offers a solution by using existing mobile infrastructure.

The cost of equipment is a big factor in whether consumers are likely to choose fixed wireless access over other alternatives, particularly in Africa. 5G customer premises products are currently significantly more expensive, with an average cost of $102 compared with $56 for LTE models.

The inception of 5G-Advanced brings a new specification in the form of 5G Reduced Capability (RedCap); see Evolving from 5G to 5G-Advanced. RedCap allows for adequate, if less spectacular, speeds but with lower data usage, making fixed wireless access more accessible by lowering the cost of customer equipment. Some manufacturers at MWC were already showcasing RedCap customer premises devices for fixed wireless access, such as MeiG and T&W Electronics.

Perhaps most importantly, there were also announcements about the network side, with Saudi operator stc heralding its 5G RedCap fixed wireless access service in Kuwait as the first in the Middle East. This is one of the earliest announcements of a 5G RedCap fixed wireless access service, but it’s unlikely to be the last. RedCap has tremendous potential for a variety of applications in more-developing regions that will benefit from its reduced cost and its ability to use some of 5G’s new capabilities and 5G-specific spectrum.

Tune into our recent webinar for insights on opportunities in the fixed wireless access market. We’ll continue to monitor the development of this area over the next few months; contact us if you’d like to know more about our services and reports on the topic.