The 5G Fixed Wireless Access Opportunity: Where Does It Fit Within Enterprise Services?

K. Weldon
K. Weldon

Summary Bullets:

  • In recent months, AT&T and Verizon have launched business services leveraging 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) that complement consumer versions introduced in 2019 or 2020.
  • We examine where these services fit into the rest of their business portfolios, how are they positioned, and potential pitfalls and competitive threats the operators need to look out for.

AT&T launched 5G FWA for businesses in March 2021, described as the “first nationwide business-focused broadband network.”  Customers can choose from Sierra Wireless or Ericsson/Cradlepoint routers and pay for either 50 or 100 Mbps speeds (on low-band 5G, as AT&T’s mmWave service is still limited).  The operator positions these services as fiber alternatives, where fiber may be unavailable, or hints that there may also be cases where customers may appreciate the speeds, flexibility, and easier provisioning of 5G.  It notes that it has 2.5 million business locations already served by fiber or wireless broadband (as LTE has been offered for two years) and the new 5G service offers equal control and security to fiber through closed, dedicated tunnels to the mobile network that are not accessible by other devices.  It is described as ideal for companies that have many distributed sites (such as large retailers), and along with fiber, these customers can count on AT&T for nationwide coverage.  AT&T usage examples include POS solutions for retailers, pop-up stores, and backup, with prioritization noted as an option.  AT&T has further launched an expanded portfolio with Cradlepoint that combines AT&T’s broadband network, data plans, and management with Cradlepoint’s 5G adapters, routers, and wireless WAN lifecycle management platform.  New vertical opportunities are noted by the partners; Cradlepoint offers a 5G mobile router for in-vehicle networks, as well as adapters that can integrate with AT&T’s SD-WAN service to position 5G as a primary connectivity option.

In April 2021, Verizon launched 5G fixed wireless for business customers in 24 cities, leveraging its high-speed mmWave network (5G Ultra Wideband).  Verizon offers three business speed tiers including 100, 200, and 400 Mbps at $69, $99, and $199 per month, respectively, and a ten-year price lock-in until 2031.  It positions its service as a cable alternative and also notes that it already has an LTE service which can be used in places where 5G is not yet available.  The operator includes professional installation services.  Verizon has disclosed that it is already offering 5G FWA at some Walgreens locations as part of a deal with Walgreens Boot Alliance.  In addition to this new service (and LTE-based wireless broadband), Verizon also offers business customers Fios (its fiber-optic broadband internet service) as well as dedicated internet access services with wireless backup.

Even T-Mobile has entered the fray with its ‘Work From Anywhere’ (WFX) service introduced in March 2021.  WFX includes three solutions: Enterprise Unlimited 5G plans, Collaboration Tools, and Home Office Internet.  The last is positioned as a low-touch solution, as 4G/5G routers ship directly to employees and self-install, with pre-configured content filtering.  Unlike AT&T and Verizon, this is sold to businesses for employees’ home use and does not extend to business locations.  However, a recent alliance with Lumen suggests future joint offerings that leverage T-Mobile’s 5G network and Lumen’s fiber assets.

So, while it makes sense to extend 5G FWA to the business community (and in fact, that may be where the largest long-term opportunity lies), there remains a number of questions. A key message from these launches is that 5G finally allows wireless connectivity to be considered a valid, reliable primary connection, not just a backup option.  It’s also clear that U.S. operators are hedging their bets by positioning 5G FWA as a way to offer nationwide business connectivity when it’s used along with existing (or partners’) fiber assets.  But they should address the following issues.

  • Cannibalization: Do the new 5G FWA services cannibalize fiber and other broadband services already offered by the operator (e.g. Fios, fiber, and 4G LTE broadband)?
  • Coverage and Availability: 5G coverage is still not nationwide and the services requires a 5G-specific device. mmWave signals are still few and far between, and none of the three operators seems likely to extend the technology nationwide even though it currently offers the best performance.
  • Positioning: What is the opportunity for home internet for work-at-home solutions vs. connectivity for business sites? Is the service pitched as primarily serving rural or urban business sites?  Is it most attractive to SMBs or large enterprises?
  • Future Competitors: It seems likely that there will be even more competitors in the mix, including: cable operators, which have the most to lose and will strike back via alliances or CBRS-based services; further deals between Lumen and T-Mobile for FWA/fiber business services; diverse CBRS spectrum holders that are likely to offer FWA to businesses; wireline operators that may use CBRS/C-Band spectrum to compete (or possibly ally) with mobile operators; and SIs/vendors (e.g., Nokia) that may sell 4G/5G FWA directly to businesses.

All these issues will play out over this year and next, as 5G networks grow and mature, customer references are disclosed, and we investigate what traction the new services bring to the operators.

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