Kathy Gibson is at ITU Telecom World in Durban – Fixed wireless access (FWA) is not particularly well-represented in the connectivity arsenal, but could prove to be a key tool in achieving universal broadband coverage.

“We are seeing strong demand for high-speed broadband,” says Matthew Reed, practice leader: Middle East and Africa at Ovum. “There is pressure to extend it and this is opening up new opportunities for FWA.”

Reed was speaking at the Huawei-sponsored ICT Ministerial Forum held alongside ITU Telecom World.

He points out that FWA networks based on LTE technology are delivering fast, high-quality and profitable connectivity that is letting governments and service providers make good on their promises of universal access.

“Not only is FWA improving connectivity in underserviced areas and remote communities, it is also being used to target high-ARPU (average revenue per user) and business customers,” Reed adds.

Typically, wireline is the solution of choice for fixed networks, but the growing demand to connect underserviced areas is driving a search for alternatives, and FWA is well-positioned to fill the gap.

“FWA is already deployed in 120 countries around the world, and is seeing the second-fastest growth in the four major world regions,” Reed explains.

“It is as fast as fibre in deployment, so there is a big opportunity in developing markets.”

Broadband penetration rates are frequently low in emerging markets, but FWA can help to dramatically increase penetration in a cost-effective way.

“In many emerging markets, FWA is extending broadband by complementing DSL, cable and fibre in markets where wireline is expensive.
LTE is helping to drive FWA growth, Reed adds. “Plans for FWA on LTE are at an advanced stage. And in August, Vodacom announced that it has created Africa’s first commercial 5G service, delivering 5G FWA in Lesotho.”

LTE accounted for 26% of FWA connections in 2016, and this is expected to rise to 40% in 2022, Ovum predicts. And growth will probably be higher in developing markets.

The business case for FWA is strengthening for a number of reasons: it can be deployed quickly at low cost; it is cheaper than fibre; and there is a faster return on investment (ROI) at an average of five years compared to fibre’s 10 years.

And the use cases are expending, Reed says.

Operators are using FWA for high-capacity triple-play services. In addition, it can be used to complement existing broadband offerings while also acting as an alternative to wireline deployments for multi-tenant apartments or nomadic customers.

FWA can be used to upgrade copper-based DSL services and is suitable for a range of users from business to remote, low income or under-serviced markets.

“Governments want to increase Internet access because it is linked with economic growth and development,” Reed says. “But most of their planning is for large-scale fibre rollouts which have proved over-ambitious.

“The cost advantages of mobile and FWA broadband over wireline means these technologies can play a greater role. FWA is being deployed in many developing environments for a wide range of use cases.”

In South Africa, Telkom is using a range of FWA services based on LTE and LTE-S. Smile Telecom offers LTE FWA services in Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda with plans to launch in DRC.

Regulators could do a lot to make FWA more pervasive, Reed adds. “FWA could be integrated into broadband plans, making them less prescriptive. These plans could give greater priority to network coverage and speed of rollout.

“FWA could also be integrated into universal service obligations,” he says.

The technology is growing fast, albeit off a smaller base, indicative that FWA is able to deliver high levels of service across different deployment scenarios.

“The business case is better than fibre,” Reed says. “FWA can be used to complement wireline or as an alternative; and it is the most cost-effective means to meet universal access objectives.

“We think that, in developing markets, there is a particular opportunity to use FWA networks.”