Few would have predicted in the early days of the fiber optic revolution that we’d eventually be turning back to radio waves to carry our broadband signals, but that’s exactly what’s happening, and for good reason. Before we ask why, then go on to look at some use cases for fixed wireless, let’s clarify exactly what we’re talking about.
What is Fixed Wireless Broadband?
Put simply, fixed wireless combines the signal carrying power of fiber optics with the unobtrusive penetration of mid-band radio. Fiber cabling carries data most of the way from source to population center, and then transmission towers take over, broadcasting on unlicensed 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz frequencies. It’s often called a “last mile” wireless solution.
Subscribers must have a receiver fitted to the exterior of their property, with a line of sight to the base station, which can be up to 10 miles away. They’ll also have an internal modem, router, and WiFi transmitter inside.
The benefits of this approach are several. Fixed Wireless can reach rural communities not covered by fiber or cable services. From the subscribers’ perspective, it can be simpler and less expensive to sign up to Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) than deal with telecom providers who bundle their 5G services into cable packages, much of which they may never need. FWA doesn’t require digging up sidewalks or extensive cabling inside apartment blocks.
There are additional benefits for non-domestic users too. Below we’ll look at some use cases from various organizational and domestic applications of fixed wireless.
Fixed Wireless Use Cases
Connecting Rural Communities
President Biden’s Federal Communications Commission faced twin challenges – making broadband affordable in poor urban communities (addressing the adoption gap) and accessible in rural areas (reducing the accessibility gap). The Biden administration pledged $100 billion to address these problems.
Of this twin-pronged approach, the rural side is the more challenging in terms of infrastructure. According to a 2020 Broadband Now report, 42 million Americans were without access to broadband (twice the FCC estimate, due to flaws in the way ISPs were asked to respond to information requests).
That’s a big gap, and the problem is, broadband fiber companies don’t want to fill it. Fiber optic cabling is expensive and linking individual, strung out homesteads and rural communities is, at best, a loss leader and, in the worst-case scenario, prohibitive.
However, cabling to a central base station covering a whole neighborhood, or even town, is very achievable. With a single well-positioned transmission tower, a rural community can all access a 5G broadband signal offering download speeds of 100Mbps or more.
Fixed Broadband doesn’t suffer the outages due to inclement weather that DSL phone-line-based systems can. It can handle sufficient throughput for over 500 households per base station. Radio waves on the typical rural frequencies of 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 2.1GHz have great range and penetration for such uses. It’s likely the rollout of FWA systems in rural communities will only accelerate in the coming years.
High Density Urban Broadband Access
Nobody wants endless utility companies tearing up the streets and sidewalks to install individual fiber cables leading to every home or apartment in a city of millions. It’s simply not a workable approach to solve the access gap, especially when cable providers expect to pass on additional costs to their customers.
FWA can fill gaps in urban provision by using existing fiber cabling and adding base stations to the top of tower blocks. It’s still a challenge, given the line-of-sight requirements of FWA, but cities already have 4G/5G mobile towers dotted all over their high places. Adding compact radio base stations should not contribute significantly to the “urban blight” that some might decry.
Certainly, the ability to deploy what has come to be considered an essential resource for any developed nation, in a way that levels the playing field between rich and poor, wins over hearts and minds. Fixed wireless can make 100% broadband access an achievable goal within years, rather than decades, where funding is made available, and the necessary permissions are granted.
As cities expand upwards and outward, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) can be built-in to urban planning to maximize ease of deployment, further reducing the footprint of this flexible telecoms technology.
Emergency Communications Provision
We’ve all read the stories of how, when disaster strikes, mobile networks become overloaded, unable to cope with the access demands of thousands of people trying to use a network node at the same time. Furthermore, DSL services can be disrupted when phone lines are brought down in storms or wildfires.
Emergency services, including hospitals receiving a high volume of critically injured victims, need to use their IoT devices without disruption, carrying them around the building as required. To ensure they have sufficient throughput, even during high-volume episodes, many hospitals and critical services develop their own FWA networks – a base station on the roof and sufficient WiFi penetration on each floor to give doctors, nurses, and even patients’ families the broadband connections they need.
When field hospitals are set up in disaster zones, in sports halls or parking lots, temporary FWA base stations can be deployed with remarkable efficiency and ease, compared to other technological solutions. It’s a great way to plug everyone into one reliable source, while allowing freedom of movement throughout a given location.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a Tufts University study showed that a 1% increase in internet access would reduce mortality by 0.1%, due to people being more able to access health information, education, shopping and other services online.
FWA can be said, without exaggeration, to be saving lives in situations of extremity.
Making Education Egalitarian
If there’s one lesson that we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the vital importance of home broadband when it came to ensuring parity between students forced to learn remotely. Where households had a reliable broadband service, the effects of lockdown on education retention were minimized.
However, in the shocking 35% of American homes with school-age children who did not have broadband, remote learning wasn’t quite so simple. This problem even has a memorable name – “the digital divide.”
Data poverty can best be addressed when broadband becomes universally affordable, when it costs the same to access it in downtown Detroit as it does in uptown Manhattan. The Biden administration is intent on bridging this divide, by significantly expanding infrastructure, both in rural and urban communities.
School districts now have the option to develop their own networks, using fixed wireless base stations and WiFi throughout their catchment areas. Together with sponsored laptop and tablet programs, such networks offer the promise of 100% broadband access, both across schools and in the individual homes of their students.
Fixed Wireless – a Flexible Solution for Reliable Broadband Service
As these use cases have demonstrated, FWA works extremely well in a range of settings, for both individual users and organizations. It can be set up quickly and efficiently and maintained with relative ease. It causes minimal disruption and is simple to explain and access.
Against all the odds, this fusion of high-speed fiber optic cable and old school radio, may offer solutions undreamt of when broadband first became our aspirational data access standard.