AT&T Outlines FWA Plans – Inside Towers

With Charter and Comcast together adding just shy of a million new mobile lines in Q4, the competition between wireless network operators and broadband providers continues to intensify. While cablecos muscle into mobile, telcos are building their fiber and fixed wireless access businesses and taking market share from traditional ISPs.

Fixed wireless access has gotten a lot of attention from analysts since it enables mobile network operators to use existing tower leases and radio assets to offer broadband internet service. T-Mobile and Verizon have been updating Wall Street on their quarterly progress with FWA for residential customers, while AT&T has continually endorsed fiber to the home (FTTH) as its preferred home broadband bet. 

But on AT&T’s Q4 2022 earnings call, CEO John Stankey indicated that in some places FWA would be AT&T’s technology of choice for broadband. 

“There will be places where we view it as being an acceptable substitute for fiber deployment,” Stankey said on the call, in response to a question from analyst Simon Flannery of Morgan Stanley. “They are going to be less densely populated areas where it makes sense to do that,” he continued. “I think it can have an opportunity to help us on some of the long-standing hybrid fiber copper base that we have that maybe has some speed challenges, and it will probably help us manage some of the churn characteristics associated with that, and I would expect to use it in that case.”

AT&T has used FWA to connect business customers for years, and Stankey said on the call that this will continue. “I do expect that we’re going to have an opportunity to complement some of our strength in wireless distribution into the business market to provide a more robust fixed broadband alternative, to those customers in bundle and package it in where it makes sense,” he said. 

Stankey did not discuss potential limitations of FWA, but his COO Jeff McElfresh, who holds a BS in electrical engineering, did share some concerns a few weeks ago, at the UBS Global TMT Conference on December 6, 2022. 

“The usage characteristics of what consumers want in a fixed broadband solution is measured in the hundreds of gigs,” he said. “And at some point in time, the technology itself of wireless cannot serve that demand and generate a positive return. … We’ll be opportunistic with fixed wireless, but it won’t be a lead offer.”

Vendors chime in

Radio vendors are eager to convince wireless carriers FWA can and will pay off, at least in the short term.  Ericsson states on its website that 5G can accelerate the FWA payoff. “With smart and targeted deployments, our studies show that the investment typically pays off in less than two years,” the vendor explains.

Nokia makes similar projections on its website, advising operators that its FWA solutions can help them stay “ahead in the broadband game and accelerate the ROI of your 5G network.”

Smaller radio vendors are also trying to seize the FWA opportunity. On January 23, Airspan announced that it will work with Federated Wireless for frequency coordination for Airspan’s latest generation of FWA products.

Federated Wireless is known for its CBRS frequency coordination software, and the company offers the same type of solution for WiFi 6E, which shares the 6 GHz band with public safety systems and utilities.

The opportunity to use WiFi 6E for FWA could enable mobile operators to supplement their licensed spectrum, possibly changing the FWA economics at some point. But Airspan SVP of technology and marketing Abel Mayal told Inside Towers he does not expect to see that happen in the near future. 

“It is possible the operators use WiFI 6E to supplement their licensed spectrum but not likely in the short term,” Mayal said. “There is a bit more opportunity now as the rules around 5G in the WiFi spectrum allows both uplink and downlink (Dual Connectivity) or even full 5G mode over Wifi 6E (Stand Alone). Previously, LAA only allowed additional downlink with a licensed spectrum utilized as an anchor band.”

With 5G, licensed spectrum alone is enough to make FWA compelling for at least two of the three nationwide network operators. And the third, AT&T, seems to be increasingly interested in targeted use cases for FWA.

Veteran telecom industry editor and journalist Martha DeGrasse is an Inside Towers Contributing Analyst with features appearing monthly. DeGrasse owns Network Builder Reports and contributes regularly to several publications. She was formerly a writer and editor with RCR Wireless and a TV business news producer.

By Martha DeGrasse, Inside Towers Contributing Analyst

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