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Can fixed wireless access fix business connectivity problems?

Fixed wireless access is being touted as a panacea for poor network connectivity, but is it a viable solution, and what are the benefits for businesses?

Towards the end of July 2017, network access provider and wireless specialist Arqiva embarked on a major trial of fixed wireless access (FWA) technology in London, working alongside electronics giant Samsung.

Together, the partners hope to prove FWA is a viable technology for use in future 5G mobile networks because it is capable of providing download speeds equal to or above those possible on a fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) fixed broadband connection.

Arqiva CEO Simon Beresford-Wylie – also a former Samsung man – returned to the UK after a stint in South Korea a few years ago, and describes feeling a sense of “catatonic shock” at how poor the UK’s communications infrastructure actually was, having been used to fixed broadband hitting 100Mbps, and 4G LTE hitting 50 to 60Mbps as standard.

“To come and experience the networks here was actually quite depressing,” he says. “This is a very competitive world and if the UK truly wants to have a globally competitive and vibrant digital economy, a foundational element of that is a fit for purpose communications infrastructure, whether fixed or mobile.

“Against that backdrop what we are doing here with the 5G fixed access trial is an important business opportunity for Arqiva and given the poor state of fibre here in the UK I think there is a market need, a market hunger, for a really fast alternative to fixed broadband,” says Beresford-Wylie.

Arqiva and Samsung will be running their FWA test-bed for the next few months, testing out viable signal range, the impact of interference from rain or London’s feral pigeons, and so on.

The technology will be operating in the millimetre wave, or very high frequency (VHF) 30GHz to 300GHz spectrum, which brings increased capacity for data and means services will be much faster.

Signs of encouragement

In this regard, things look encouraging. At launch, the two partners were already able to deliver just over 1Gbps of mobile broadband – enough to stream four simultaneous 4K high-definition television streams with no buffering or break in service – 250 metres across the rooftops of central London to Arqiva’s Tottenham Court Road office.

“We will run this pilot for the next four to five months and as we progress through next year the 3GPPP will standardise the first release of 5G, which will have a fixed flavour,” says Beresford-Wylie.

“As we move into the second half of next year we would like to bring a FWA offering to the market – but we don’t intend to compete with our customers; we intend to have an alternative that they can bundle with their services, and that has resonated very well.”

So what is FWA anyway?

In its simplest form – such as is being tested by Arqiva – an FWA network is a point-to-point data communications link that bypasses copper and fibre lines for the last mile and instead uses a terrestrial microwave platform to connect two fixed locations.

Because FWA requires no investment in additional infrastructure and there is no need to seek planning permission and wayleaves, or dig up roads to lay cables, it is increasingly believed to be a viable and extremely cost-effective connectivity solution both for dense urban areas with poor connectivity and remote rural areas with no connectivity.

A true alternative to fibre broadband?

Because Arqiva’s FWA trial relates to the use of the technology in 5G networks, hopes are high that it will eventually form a major part of the UK’s 5G deployment.

Indeed, Arqiva has already started acquiring real estate – in the form of access rights to lamp-posts and other items of street furniture – across London to install the technology, and has signed deals with 13 borough councils in the capital, most recently in Kingston upon Thames.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Irish Sea, plans to build a nationwide FWA network are already moving ahead, with Huawei and local service provider Imagine working together to cover Ireland with a 200Mbps wireless broadband service.

Sasha Williamson, CEO at managed network services provider Luminet – which, incidentally, sold Arqiva the spectrum being used in its trial – agrees that FWA has potential to be an element of 5G, but says for a number of reasons he is yet to be convinced it is the right technology to tackle the fixed broadband problem – partly because its physical range is still very limited.

“What that means is a massive network densification is going to happen. We commissioned some analysis on small cells and we think they will need 60,000 more sites in London. The size of the prize versus the cost in terms of rolling out many thousands of sites to get mass coverage, one would expect FWA to be more suited to a mobile operation [than fixed broadband],” he explains.

Read more about the potential of 5G

If you want to get an idea of how FWA will support the 5G network by enabling massive bandwidth capabilities, you could do worse than take a trip to India, says Samsung executive vice-president and head of next generation communications, Paul Kyungwhoon Cheun.

Here, network operator Reliance Jio is effectively making bandwidth free by offering 4G at minimal cost. It now has over 100 million subscribers using 15GB of data per month on average, and India is well on the way to becoming the single largest consumer of mobile data in the world by some margin, says Cheun.

In the UK, 5G is even now being sold on the promise of massive bandwidth, but to enable that you need a lot of spectrum, says Cheun. Because the only place this is really available is in the millimetre wave bands, FWA has to be the technology of choice, and because FWA effectively makes bandwidth free, the UK will see massive spikes in data consumption just as India has.

“If 2G was about putting a phone in your pocket to make calls, 3G and 4G was putting internet in your pocket, and 5G will put fibre in your pocket so wherever you go you have unlimited bandwidth,” says Cheun.

So is it possible that the future of FWA will not be as an alternative technology to fixed fibre broadband, but as a successor technology? Maybe, but the economic case has not yet been effectively made.

Arqiva’s Beresford-Wylie believes a couple of things make FWA potentially compelling from an economic point of view. “From a cost perspective, the first indications are that it could be 20 to 40% less costly than pulling fibre all the way to the premises. Secondly, because it’s wireless, it’s very quick to deploy, which is something we’re excited about,” he says.

The business case for FWA

The economics may be still up for debate, but the business case for FWA is already being demonstrated by Luminet, which has been selling the technology to enterprises for a decade now, and boss Williamson is a keen advocate of using it to enhance business connectivity.

One of Luminet’s reseller clients is Etherlive, an ICT services suppliers geared towards the events business, with past clients including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show. It offers its customers Luminet’s Fibre-Air FWA service.

With events organisers increasingly needing to connect into off-site datacentres to run their cloud services, and attendees getting stroppy if they arrive to find no Wi-Fi available, Etherlive was finding it more and more of a challenge to set up and tear down complex temporary networks that ultimately would only be used for a few days.

“In some instances, a fibre or copper-based connection might be technically feasible, but we rarely have the sufficient lead-up time available. Increasingly, wireless connectivity is the most attractive option,” explains Etherlive director and co-founder Tom McInerney.

“Fibre-Air struck us a great standalone product that can also be combined with Luminet’s Fibre services to deliver truly diverse, always-on last mile connectivity, potentially giving us multi-layer resilience supported by automatic failover and a 100% uptime SLA,” adds McInerney.

“We were also attracted to the fact Fibre-Air is available on both licensed and shared frequencies. We immediately saw the opportunity to inspire confidence in clients by using the licensed frequency as a primary connection and the 5GHz shared frequency for back-up resilience.”

So for the next few years, it looks as though business buyers will mostly use FWA services in either a supporting capacity, to augment existing network facilities, or as a temporary measure. However, this is a technology with great potential, and if it can be proven cost-effective as part of a 5G deployment, then expect to see wider take-up within enterprises in the near future.

This was last published in August 2017

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