Can Fixed Wireless Compete with Cable for Broadband?

The simple answer to the above question is that it already is, but there are important caveats. For home broadband, it sometimes feels like every option comes with downsides. If you want cable, but live in a rural community, it may simply not be on offer, because it hasn’t been worth your providers’ effort to cable to every homestead in a sparsely populated region.

DSL is fine but it can be very slow, relying as it does on old copper wires and telephony. DSL, satellite, and mobile-based systems are subject to weather effects or throughput issues during busy periods and emergencies, when everyone in a small radius is trying to access the same system at once.

Fixed Wireless can Prove an Economically Viable Choice

Very recently, Forbes Magazine made an economic case for fixed wireless as an alternative to cable or fiber broadband. This may seem counter-intuitive at first. Fiber should deliver by far the fastest broadband service, with download speeds up to 1GBps. Cable comes right into your home, meaning you’re directly piped into the source, solving localized throughput and latency issues. 

How then could it be worthwhile to opt for an alternative system which often delivers much slower download speeds (as low as 25Mbps) than fiber, while requiring you to deal with a specialist provider (rather than your cable TV company, for instance)?

As we’ve already seen, particularly in rural communities, cable and fiber may simply not be an option. You’re left with good old DSL, or if you want more reliable broadband, whatever fixed wireless options are available.

What Exactly is Fixed Wireless, and Why is it Different?

Let’s explore how the technology works, and how it differs from cabled options. 

Firstly, fixed wireless requires some fiber optic cabling, but not all the way into each customer’s property. Instead, the cable runs to a network of base stations (radio transmission towers) which then broadcast on protected frequencies to individual receivers on the outside of subscribers’ homes.

This means that to access a fixed wireless broadband supply, you need to purchase and arrange for the installation of your receiver and modem. You need a line of sight to the base station to receive an unimpeded signal. Once those elements are in place, however, you can receive a signal every bit as strong as that provided by cable or fiber providers.

An added benefit is that you don’t require the disruption of interior cabling, which some lettings agencies may not even permit. For rural communities, fixed wireless connections are a boon, since the technology can be economically provided, even in the most remote regions, if landscape features don’t render line-of-sight impossible.

Finally, fixed wireless allows a great deal of freedom for multiple users within the same household to access the service from various points of the house or garden. 

Fixed Wireless as Competitor for Cable Broadband Providers

Given that radio is a comparatively ancient technology, it may seem surprising that fixed wireless providers can compete with cable providers. After all, many subscribers already have a cable television service which bundles in internet provision using the same pipeline.

In fact, that’s of the reasons why consumers might opt for fixed wireless over cable. If you don’t watch much cable TV, it can be annoying having to subscribe to an entirely unnecessary service to get online. Bundles are only of value when each bundled item is something you want.

Fixed wireless allows subscribers who simply want high speed broadband, such as the growing army of people who work from home, to pay for just that. If there’s ever a problem, they have a specialist provider to call, rather than a monolithic cable supplier whose helpline may be more concerned with the fine print of sports packages that broadband outage issues.

Forbes magazine recently reported that Wells Fargo has issued an equity note stating that fixed wireless may have become a “viable competitive threat, particularly in rural areas” (to wireline providers). Wells Fargo went onto to predict that fixed wireless broadband would capture up to 60% of new broadband subscribers by 2024.

Cable providers have already begun to respond to the challenge, by lowering their subscription charges (a comparatively rare outcome in this age of spiraling utility costs). The two largest fixed wireless providers in America, T-Mobile and Verizon currently offer 5G or LTE fixed wireless services for $50 and $50-$60 per month. At time of writing, AT&T is now providing a fiber broadband service at $55, with no annual contract required.

Such rivalry is only good news for consumers, and for investors seeking to retain confidence in their T-Mobile or Verizon shares. 

Comparing the Benefits of Fixed Wireless versus Wireline Broadband

Here are the main plus points of both systems:

Wireline (Fiber or Cable)

  • May already come bundled in with television service.
  • Potentially high broadband speeds (average of 100Mbps for downloads)
  • High uptake of service already (over 85% for cable, fiber and DSL)

Fixed Wireless

  • Economic even in rural communities.
  • Good to excellent broadband speeds (average of 204Mbps for downloads)
  • No need for interior cabling

And here are some of the downsides of each:

Wireline (Fiber or Cable)

  • May require subscribers to pay for unused services
  • Cabling must run right to each individual home
  • Often not economically viable in rural areas

Fixed Wireless

  • Requires line of sight from base station to receiver
  • Requires the affixing of a receiver to home’s exterior (and a gateway unit with modem / router / WiFi)
  • Higher speed broadband may not be available

It’s not as straightforward as one technology superseding the other – both have their advantages and disadvantages and there are viable use cases for both. If you’re in a rural community, however, there really is just once choice. Fixed broadband delivers the value, coverage, reliability, and affordability you need.

What is the Current State of Play with Fixed Wireless Broadband?

Together Verizon (“5G Home”) and T-Mobile (“5G Home Internet”) are bullish in their predictions for fixed wireless’s expansion. T-Mobile reached one million service subscribers by April 2021. They are confidently predicting 10 to 12 million new adopters by 2025. Fixed Wireless is slated to become the fastest growing mid-band spectrum broadcast technology.

Fixed wireless’s transmission towers can carry large quantities of data over significant distances, reducing the physical footprint of broadband. There’s no need to keep digging up sections of the sidewalk or causing disruption in shared stairwells while cable fitters tear up the skirting boards.

Wells Fargo has predicted impressive additional profits for both telecom providers offering fixed wireless – $1.5 billion and $1 billion of extra revenue, respectively, in 2023. Worldwide, the bank is predicting that 7.7 million current fixed wireless subscribers will increase to 17.5 million.

Two more economics benchmarks reinforce this prediction. Firstly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ PPI index for “wired communication carriers – internet access” declined since 2020, despite current inflation rates. Secondly, the Consumer Price Index for the category increased by only 2% between mid-2020 and mid-2021, a rate significantly less than inflation (which averaged around 4%).

It appears that fixed wireless really is a disruptive force within the broadband utilities sector, which can only be a good thing for both fixed wireless providers and consumers.

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