Fixed wireless providers use a variety of technologies in their networks, ranging from microwave-band connections like WiMAX to millimeter-band connections similar to those used in 5G technologies. Growing adoption of connected devices, such as smartphones, laptops, and smart devices, in many commercial and residential applications, such as distance learning, autonomous driving, multi-user gaming, video conferencing, and live streaming, as well as in telemedicine and augmented reality, is expected to generate the need for fixed wireless connectivity solutions for 5G to achieve expanded coverage. 5G network software is capable of delivering ample bandwidth to further boost data traffic. It has 10 to 100 times more bandwidth and high-speed data services than 3G and 4G networks provide. The growing demand for high-speed broadband services is therefore expected to drive the development of the market for 5G fixed wireless connectivity in the immediate future.
Main difference between fixed wireless and cellular connections is the equipment involved. Cellular equipment usually consists of a single device within the home, which may have a separate antenna that is placed on the house. Fixed wireless connections usually have an external antenna on the outside of the house to maximize signal strength. This is then connected to the customer premises equipment (CPE) where you plug in your router or the CPE might have a router built in. In multifamily buildings like apartments, the entire building might be connected to the network with a single antenna and CPE, which is then connected to routers in each individual household.
With the development of 4G LTE home internet and 5G home internet which both sacrifice mobility to provide a stronger signal, the distinction between fixed wireless and cellular providers is becoming even more blurred.
Fixed wireless infrastructure
Fixed wireless providers work similarly to most landline networks, but they use wireless transmitters instead of running cables underground. Not only does this configuration save on the up-front costs of building a network, but it also allows for a strong and fast internet connection within that network.
These wireless transmitters connect in two different ways, point-to-point (PtP) and point-to-multiple-point (PtMP). The antennas that connect to all the residential customers in a given area use PtMP, with one tower providing a signal to multiple homes. These antennas then use direct PtP connections to send the signal toward the backbone of the provider’s network (a high-bandwidth fiber connection), which then connects to the rest of the internet.
Fixed wireless antennas can also be much smaller (and cheaper to build) than cell towers. However, to get the most out of their range, they need to be mounted someplace high. Tall buildings and mountains make excellent spots to mount antennas. But, in flatter areas, providers might have to build towers just to keep the signals from being blocked by the curvature of the earth.
There are a lot of kinds of wireless internet, and fixed wireless is just one specific kind. Fixed wireless internet is different from satellite internet, Wi-Fi, 4G, and 5G.
Satellite internet works using transmitters orbiting Earth. This technology allows for high availability but also results in high latency.
Wi-Fi generally refers to small Local Area Networks (LANs). For example, your home Wi-Fi network or the Wi-Fi at your favorite coffee shop both manage the internet connections for all the devices on their respective networks, but they rely on an ISP internet connection to relay all those connections.
Fixed wireless is also different from cellular technologies like 4G and 5G, though there is considerable overlap in the technologies they use. These wireless technologies are used both in mobile phones that have internet connectivity, as well as many home internet connections, such as 4G LTE home internet. Although the technologies are similar to fixed wireless, cellular towers require more infrastructure to provide mobile coverage and offer lower speeds. Fixed wireless towers, on the other hand, are built with home internet in mind, so they are often able to deliver higher speeds using a few well-placed towers.
The expansion of fixed wireless
Fixed wireless technology has been around for a long time, but it’s seen more growth as more frequencies of the spectrum are opened up for commercial use. For example, another chunk of the spectrum was opened in 2015, allowing fixed wireless providers to use frequencies that were previously reserved for government uses like radar.
Also, since fixed wireless networks can make use of unlicensed spectrum bands (where equipment has to be able to function while causing minimal interference to other users), new fixed wireless networks can be deployed rapidly while dealing with fewer regulations.
One of the biggest challenges for fixed wireless networks is their asymmetric speeds. Like many other connection types, fixed wireless networks often deliver much higher download speeds than upload speeds. This is ideal for many high-bandwidth activities, like streaming movies and downloading files; however, as online habits shift toward things like video chat, telehealth, and live streaming, upload speed is becoming more important.
This shift is reflected in government programs like the USDA’s Reconnect Program, which requires providers to offer symmetrical speeds of at least 100 Mbps in order to qualify for funding. This could make it difficult for fixed wireless providers, many of whom are small local companies, to keep up with other technologies.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Although fixed wireless isn’t as fast as fiber technology, it might be one of the fastest and easiest ways to address the digital divide and better than satellite internet. It might even get better as wireless technologies like 5G inspire new solutions to the challenges that come with wireless internet.
One example of this potential can be found in a city of Texas, where the city is building a fixed wireless network to bring internet access to school children. Motivated by the urgent need for online education during the pandemic, this new wireless network will cover 50 square miles and, notably, provide symmetrical upload and download speeds, which are important for online education. Fixed wireless is an ideal technology for this kind of application because it covers an entire area, filling in the gaps where homes fall between other providers' coverage areas.
This project is one of many being funded through the new federal broadband infrastructure programs. The planners of this project also intend to expand its reach in the future, bringing wireless internet access to underserved communities throughout the Texas panhandle.