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Closing the Digital Divide With 5G Fixed Wireless Access

By Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas

For many areas throughout the world, there is often a disparity between the availability of reliable Internet access between urban and rural areas. In the US and many countries, this has been termed the ‘digital divide’ and appears to be a great area for cooperation and consensus because most Americans understand the importance of providing all Americans with equitable access to information.

Urban areas are dense and often have great fixed broadband infrastructure assets already laid in the ground or in the right of way, whereas the cost of running fixed broadband infrastructure in rural places can be quite prohibitive. While satellite Internet availability has been around for many years, it not yet up to the speed or reliability of a fixed landline. According to the Federal Communications Commission, more than 18 million Americans – principally in rural areas – do not have access to broadband, including wired and fixed wireless connections. However, a new study has found that the actual number of people lacking access to broadband in the US is closer to 42 million.

Fortunately, 5G wireless networks have now advanced to a stage where Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) has become an efficient and robust alternative for providing broadband in areas that are underserved with Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable or fiber. 5G Americas’ latest white paper “Fixed Wireless Access with 5G Networks” describes how this technology can be used to help close the digital divide.

Figure 2.3 ISP technologies serving urban and rural geography (States: IL , WA, NY and TX) (Fixed Wireless Access with 5G Networks)

So what is FWA? Briefly, FWA involves the delivery of data wirelessly to a stationary piece of equipment that provides access to the Internet for a customer, often replacing or complementing a wired home broadband connection. 5G FWA is based on 5G cellular standards with significant economies of scale and scope for its infrastructure equipment. It basically uses the same technologies that go into your mobile phone, but instead shoots that signal to a piece of hardware that’s somewhere in your home or office building. 5G FWA today supports average data rates which can exceed 500 Mbps, with peak data rates as high as 2 Gbps supported in some conditions.

Figure 2.5 Rural vs Urban broadband providers ("Fixed Wireless Access for 5G Networks")

As the global pandemic has clearly demonstrated, people are becoming more reliant on their home broadband connections to do work remotely. Connectivity has become a killer application. Indeed, an Ericsson/ConsumerLab 2020 study indicated that 33% of the consumers plan to invest in 5G connections or better broadband to face a potential next wave of the pandemic. However, in rural areas where landlines are rare and satellite connections can be too slow or constrained by network latency, rural households may find consistent quality of service issues for broadband video, which makes up the vast lion’s share of current internet usage. Indeed, Cisco’s Annual Internet Report projects that global IP video traffic will be 82% of all consumer Internet traffic by 2021, up from 73% in 2016.

But FWA is not a new idea. In some states, FWA based operators—primarily regional Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs)— already cover as much as 76% of rural census blocks. In the past, FWA has not been able to fully close the divide. What does 5G FWA offer where previous technologies do not?

New advanced wireless technologies and features in “5G New Radio” (5G NR) can mitigate challenges of reaching a rural consumer home using features like coverage extension. Tools like Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB) can densify the wireless network at comparatively low cost and provide a high-class speed by serving multiple homes using beamforming and massive MIMO technologies.

Figure 1.6 5G New Radio Link enables FWA ("Fixed Wireless Access for 5G Networks")

Additionally, several advances in 5G NR improve the radio access network:

  • Increased spectrum bandwidth provides much higher data throughput
  • Beamforming focuses signal energy towards the user’s equipment
  • Beam management and flexible beam configuration improves coverage
  • Enhanced channel state information feedback improves network performance
  • MU-MIMO (Multi-user multi-in multi-out) can provide multiple users with high download traffic load services
  • Carrier aggregation or dual connectivity allows for larger bandwidth
  • Higher order modulation allows for higher peak throughputs
  • Dynamic TDD (Time Division Duplex) helps manage signal interference

Moreover, advances in the 5G Core network increase the type of services available by operators, as well as improve 5G security. These technical advances include policy enforcement based on application detection, device lock, network discrimination, geographical area lock, network slicing and service differentiation, as well as numerous enhancements over previous cellular generations.  

As network operators consider all of these new advances that 5G brings to both legacy FWA network deployments, as well as new ‘greenfield’ opportunities, they should consider additional factors. For instance:

  • Spectrum considerations include availability of low, mid, or high band (mmWave) spectrum.
  • Siting will consider physical location and density of cell sites, as well as macro antenna heights, and the possibility of small cells
  • Product speeds will vary based on technology used and geography served. These technologies may include adjustment of antenna gains, massive MIMO, antenna selection, and CPE placements and power.
  • Capacity will be determined by aggregate demand from all subscribing households in a coverage area.
  • Customer Premise Equipment (CPE) is one of the important considerations for quality of service and coverage and include both indoor and outdoor options, which affect signal strength, data throughput, coverage, and power usage.

At the same time, government regulatory bodies should continue to remove barriers to 5G FWA deployments. Closing the digital divide is an imperative, so agencies like the Federal Communications Commission should ensure that policies will actively promote their quick deployment and adoption. One area involves eliminating symmetrical requirements for downlink and uplink speeds, as consumer usage patterns indicate data usage is 8 times heavier on the downlink than the uplink.

Overall, 5G FWA offers an exciting and new promise of connectivity for rural households and businesses throughout the Americas and beyond. If the way we work remotely has forever changed, it will be incumbent on providers to quickly offer the very best service to communities that have traditionally been underserved. It is clear in my mind that providing reliable, consistent broadband connectivity will fundamentally alter the course of history when it comes to where we choose to work, live and play.

We should embrace 5G FWA and the new opportunities it will provide.



Find out more about Fixed Wireless Access for 5G Networks

5G FWA offers numerous capabilities for helping to close the digital divide. Discover more about how 5G FWA will help bring accessible broadband to underserved areas.

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