Fixed Wireless Access Finds Success, but Perception Challenges Remain

B. Washburn
B. Washburn

Summary Bullets:

• Cellular wireless services continue to find traction for flexible, value-priced temporary and failover connectivity, as long as the enterprise is comfortable using best-effort broadband.

• Fixed wireless specialists offer a flexible range of microwave access connectivity when wireline options are inadequate or not available, but buyers still frequently lean toward wired.

In the U.S., fixed wireless services have gone through several boom-and-bust publicity cycles. But behind the publicity, wireless technologies are sound and in most cases, delivering on promises. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint don’t disclose the numbers of businesses that have purchased CPE with their respective managed 4G/3G fixed wireless failover services. But the widespread resale of cellular failover services by other providers shows the service option has solid traction. Cost and availability have something to do with that. When a wireless failover service can cost as little as $10-$20 per month as long as it’s idle, that’s a cheap insurance policy. It also helps that 4G networks are now nationwide, and offer better throughput and performance than 3G wireless. But cellular wireless is still best-effort broadband, and not an option for failing over traffic that must have sustained throughput or guaranteed performance.

For everything else, there’s a range of fixed wireless access services, available from a mix of some larger (and many small) providers. Most of these options require direct line of sight to connect. Some transmit in lower microwave frequencies: They are easier to set up and support better ranges than millimeter band microwave, but can only push through, say, 3-6 Mbps. As a general rule, as frequencies go higher, setup becomes more finicky but the signal supports much more bandwidth: 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps and even higher. TelePacific and TowerStream, for example, offer both lower- and higher-speed services in select metros, providing whichever the customer needs.

A variant fixed wireless business model builds mesh backbones, hopping from building to building using line of sight to assemble a robust core network. Ideally, this model prefers to start a new building with one client, then sells through to the other tenants at the same location. Windstream, TowerStream and a smaller company named Webpass are among the providers that support this model, though getting ready access to all clients means getting access to building wiring; and that in turn means securing the property owner’s backing. Sample prices for these types of microwave services range from less than $1,000 to more than $5,000 per month for services that can range up to 100 Mbps/up to 1 Gbps.

Service providers operating microwave services with properly installed and maintained links, frequently offer a core service availability of 99.99%. Issues that can be problematic at long distances (e.g., “rain fade”) don’t factor much into short urban hops. New construction can be problematic if it blocks line of sight between transceivers: communications companies can be aware well in advance and re-route links as needed.

Still, buyers might assume any wireless option is a gamble. As consumers, people are accustomed to mass market satellite TV and cell phones, where service isn’t always reliable. Fixed wireless can get painted with the same broad brush, even if the link is professionally engineered and installed. There’s also something about copper or fiber as a physical asset inside a conduit and right of way, which makes customers more comfortable than intangible beams criss-crossing the air over the city. But where the ground conduit can’t delivery quickly or completely, fixed wireless continues to play a significant alternative role.

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