Imagine, Huawei try to show FWA is a real alternative to FTTH

Monday 21 August 2017 | 14:09 CET | Background

Is the tide turning for wireless as an alternative to fixed lines? A major project for Huawei in Ireland suggests the time has come. The competition between fixed and mobile is intense in Ireland, as not one but two players are rolling out FTTH, and the cable network is also expanding. The question remains whether FWA (fixed-wireless access) is a viable replacement for the fixed line on a massive scale. Irish operator Imagine Communications' project will be one to watch. Otherwise the mobile market may be waiting for 6G before FWA is a real alternative to FTTH.

Fixed-mobile boundary gets blurry

Fixed, mobile and wireless are intertwined in various ways. Fibre is the most stable infrastructure with the highest capacity, mobile offers the user freedom, and wireless frees him from expensive or bothersome cables. Fibre-optic networks are gradually gaining scale by taking fibre deep into the network and closer to the end-user, both in fixed (VDSL, Docsis) and mobile (densification for 5G).

The networks are intertwined at various levels:

  • Microwave links are used for mobile infrastructure, although these are increasingly replaced with fibre (FTTS, fibre-to-the-site). Mobile networks are ever more made up of fibre optics. 
  • Wi-Fi technology can just as easily be an extension of fixed or mobile. For the fixed network, it offers convenience, by eliminating cords, while for mobile it serves as offload. Around 60 percent of all mobile data runs over Wi-Fi networks or femtocells rather than the cellular network, according to Cisco.
  • Routers can come with both DSL and LTE built-in, and a growing number of operators are launching these to provide a faster and more reliable service for customers. These are used especially where DSL connections are slow, as KPN is testing.
  • Liberty Global's CTO suggested recently that the company is faced with an important decision now that 5G is nearly ready: should it cooperate with a mobile operator or roll out 5G based on its own fibre-rich cable network?
  • The development of 5G has focused particularly on the IoT and fixed-line replacement. Opinions on this have differed. AT&T and Verizon are embracing 5G as a fixed replacement, while T-Mobile US considers this short-sighted: "The carriers’ vision for 5G’s potential is mind-numbingly limited. We are talking about amazing technology here, and they can’t see beyond their own self-interest. AT&T wants to 'connect your world' by connecting your microwave and everything else in your life – including your bank account – to AT&T. Verizon’s grand vision is that you can cancel your fixed broadband and watch Netflix at home with wireless Verizon broadband. Double yawn. (...) With incredibly low latency, very high bandwidth and sensors capable of decade-long battery life, 5G networks are set to enable one of the biggest tech transformations in history."
  • Google (Project Loon, Project Wing, SkyBender) and Facebook (Aquila) have started various initiatives using anything from drones to hot-air balloons to power communications. SpaceX (Elon Musk, Google) and OneWeb (Greg Wyler, Airbus, Bharti, Qualcomm, Virgin, Coca-Cola, among others) plan to launch global satellite networks to bring broadband to rural areas. O3b Networks (SES), SES and Viasat/Eutelsat already provide satellite broadband services.

FWA revival

FWA (fixed-wireless access), or WLL (wireless local loop) as it used to be called, is having a revival. The basis is usually a stationary (not mobile) connection in a high frequency band. Google Fiber, which is rolling out FTTH in the US, is choosing wireless in some areas as an alternative for its access lines. SoftBank has invested in the start-up Altaeros, which uses 'Super Towers' to offer internet access. In Boston, the company Starry is offering a 200 Mbps symmetric connection for USD 50 per month based on an external antenna and indoor Wi-Fi router. 

Imagine and Huawei offer WTTx against FTTH and cable

The most ambitious project may be Imagine Communications in Ireland, as it's targeting a national roll-out, rather than just rural areas, and has the support of a major player in Huawei. Furthermore, there are already two operators rolling out FTTH in Ireland: incumbent Eir and SIRO, a joint venture between Vodafone and energy company ESB, while Virgin Media (Liberty Global) also is expanding its cable network in Ireland

Imagine has already connected 16,000 homes in a test and another 100,000 have signed up for services. The roll-out will get underway in October and should reach 85 percent coverage in 2019. Huawei describes its equipment as WTTx (wireless-to-the-x) as well as 4.5G and pre-5G.

Given the competitive market climate, these kind of developments in mobile/wireless technology are very interesting to monitor. Will they finally be able to replace the fixed line, or even FTTH? Or do we need to wait for 6G before the mobile sector finds its 'holy grail'?

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