Many industry pundits, including myself, have pointed to 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) services as the early “killer” 5G application. Case in point, T-Mobile has built a significant FWA business in the U.S., leveraging its early lead with a complete 5G spectrum footprint to deliver both consumer and business wireless internet services. It's wise for the magenta-hued “Un-carrier” to monetize its network investment beyond mobile phones because it does not offer fiber. FWA is also poised to become essential in bridging the lack of fixed broadband services in parts of rural America that are underserved by cable and fiber.
On the other hand, rival AT&T is building a formidable fiber network that offers multi-gig speeds and supplies critical backhaul for its mobile 5G network. AT&T has traditionally offered FWA services to its business customers, but it smartly leads with a “fiber-first” strategy that plays to its strengths. Last year I spent time with AT&T CEO John Stankey on a rural fiber tour; if you are interested, take a look at my writeup here.
With all that said, FWA’s early momentum is leading many to question whether it is simply a superior alternative to fiber. That’s a complicated comparison to unpack, but one I am often asked about, so in this article I’ll share my insights on the topic (and my love of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots as a kid!).
Defining the architectural and infrastructure elements
Before jumping into the debate, it’s helpful to define the architecture and underlying infrastructure for FWA and fiber. FWA provides wireless broadband through radio links between two fixed points that operates on licensed spectrum over LTE and 5G networks. This serves a home or business through a wireless connection to a customer premises equipment (CPE) unit that typically integrates Wi-Fi. On the other hand, fiber employs optical cable trenched underground with last-mile connections made either aerially (usually from a telephone pole) or underground depending on the topography of the homes and businesses being served. Again, CPE devices serve as the termination points, but in the case of fiber they are physically wired to the carrier network.
The pros and cons of FWA versus fiber
FWA and fiber services each have pluses and minuses. FWA is easy to deploy in areas that have the requisite 5G spectrum coverage, and CPE devices can be shipped directly to customers with simple instructions for installation. No aerial or underground cabling is required, making it a clean deployment that doesn't require drilling into exterior walls. However, FWA is limited in upload and download performance based on the spectrum band deployed. There are also capacity and speed limitations, given that FWA and mobile services compete for the same cellular network bandwidth.
Fiber’s superpowers are speed and reliability. AT&T and Google offer multi-gig capabilities and symmetrical performance—meaning that upload and download speeds are the same. Fiber is also upgradeable via modular optical components, making it highly futureproof and less costly to upgrade over time relative to FWA. I have spent time with AT&T and seen firsthand in real-world deployments the potential for future upgradeability beyond what is offered today. However, one of the downsides is fiber’s deployment cost, which plays out in a chicken-and-egg scenario. Areas of lower subscriber density such as rural America stretch out the time required for the operator to reach financial breakeven on their investment, which complicates the economics and extends the time to achieve positive average revenue per user (ARPU).
To address fiber’s economic challenges, AT&T is taking an innovative approach to extending fiber reach through its recently announced Gigapower joint venture with BlackRock Alternatives. Gigapower's open-access business model could result in the exponential growth of fiber connectivity to serve internet service providers and customers outside of AT&Ts 21-state wireline service footprint. You can find those details here.
I recently spoke with Chris Sambar, head of AT&T Network, to get his perspective on the FWA vs fiber debate, given his team’s responsibility for the architecture, engineering, construction and operation of the company’s global network. Sambar rightly points out that FWA, although a great alternative for business critical failover, rural connectivity and use cases such as mobile food truck point of sale processing in my beloved hometown of Austin, Texas, often suffers in the long run with costly cellular infrastructure upgrades, expensive license spectrum and capacity limitations. This can result in higher subscriber churn, lower operator profitability and eventually higher prices for consumers and businesses.
This all leads to the million-dollar question: Which is better, FWA or fiber? Ultimately, FWA and fiber are better together. Fiber provides the necessary backhaul for 5G deployments, supporting mobile and fixed wireless services. In geographies that are suitable for the cost-effective deployment of fiber, it is the optimal choice given its performance value. For those areas that are more challenging, such as in the mountains or outlying areas with smaller population densities, FWA is a logical choice. For the latter, mobile network operators and wireless internet service providers will have to ensure proper spectrum capacity and deploy a “layer cake” of 5G spectrum (low-, mid- and high-band) to maintain adequate levels of performance and reliability. Ultimately, access to an intelligent mix of FWA and fiber services will be a solid combination to ensure connectivity for all.