Fixed wireless access (FWA) is taking the world by storm, and southern Asia is no exception. The GSMA reports that as of March 2023, 17 operators in eight Asia Pacific countries offered 5G FWA services. Markets where the fixed broadband technology mix is skewed towards xDSL, such as Australia, and those with low total fixed broadband penetration, such as the Philippines, are expected to lead the growth of 5G FWA in the region.
Need for speed
We live in an age where demand for higher connectivity speeds is growing at an unprecedented rate; 5G is expected to play a key role.
“The demand for speed is driven by the increasing need to support advancements in digital content, such as 8k video streaming, making higher broadband speeds essential to meet these demands effectively,” says Yisrael Nov, EVP, sales, Parallel Wireless. “Video streaming transitioned from 4k to 8k resolution – requiring a fourfold increase in broadband speed to effectively manage the augmented data volume. Users engaging in 8k streaming experience increased bitrates (data transfer rates) to facilitate content downloading while maintaining superior quality. As a result, the increase in data requires more bandwidth to support it.”
The GSMA data predicts that there will be 1.4 billion 5G connections in Asia Pacific by 2030, accounting for 41% of all mobile connections. The region’s operators are investing US$259 billion on their networks – mostly on 5G deployments – over 2023-2030.
FWA vs fibre – no competition
Southern Asia has a broad range of topology – from dense, urban cities to sparsely populated remote and rural villages, among others. According to the ITU, more than 25% of the population remains without internet access in several southern Asian countries, due to factors including environmental, demographics, infrastructure development, and economic conditions. The spread of FWA – in comparison to competing technologies like fibre and satellite – depends to a significant level on these factors.
FWA is being touted as an affordable solution for those in lower income and underserved regions, in particular: “FWA tends to be more costeffective and faster to deploy than fibre, especially in areas with limited fixed infrastructure. FWA can be a solution for regions where laying fibre optic cables is challenging due to geographical constraints, regulatory hurdles, or high costs,” says Richard Pak, CEO, Curvalux.
In the competition with fibre, the latest 5G and WiFi 6 and 7 advances mean that FWA can offer a viable alternative, which is continually improving.
However, Ron Ng, Chief Business Officer, Curvalux, reports that “the presence of fibre may influence pricing and competition in the broadband market. FWA providers may need to offer competitive pricing and services to attract and retain customers in areas where fibre is well-established.”
Nevertheless, FWA offers a substantially faster time to market than competing technologies. Fibre infrastructure, for example, is labour intensive, time consuming, and faces regulatory challenges including zoning, right-of-way approval and local permits, as well as requiring the installation of conduits and utility poles. FWA can also serve as a solution in areas where the ‘last mile’ connectivity is the main challenge, says.
Despite the overarching benefits of FWA, fibre remains Asia Pacific’s leading broadband technology of choice – by a long shot. As per S&P Global Market Intelligence, the region had 596.5 million fibre broadband connections in 2022 – expected to grow to 726 million by 2027 – with a 50.7% household penetration rate. In contrast, FWA subscribers for the region numbered 9.3 million, while satellite had 237,000 subscribers.
Monetising the network
While network modernisation and the move to 5G remains a priority, the matter of monetisation is becoming increasingly pressing amidst stalling core service revenues. According to the GSMA, 5G FWA has ‘the potential to drive incremental revenue opportunities for operators.’
FWA will be of particular relevance in markets where fixed broadband is still based on DSL technologies, and in markets with low overall fixed broadband penetration, like the Philippines – in May, Globe Telecom reported that it generates 25% of its home broadband revenues from FWA. Indonesia and Thailand will also be key markets for 5G FWA, says the GSMA.
So how exactly can FWA help monetise the network?
On the quest to meet rapidly expanding demands for high-speed connectivity, FWA availability naturally represents an excellent money-maker for operators, since broadband enables users to consume more data, increasing revenue from data usage. Moreover, “as more devices and applications require high-speed internet, the demand for data is growing; operators can capture a larger share of this growing market by providing FWA broadband,” adds Pak.
FWA can also help mobile operators better utilise their existing infrastructure, with cell towers and backhaul networks being put to additional task to deliver additional services. By providing broadband access to areas where it might be difficult or expensive to lay traditional wired infrastructure, operators can use their resources more efficiently.
With these expanded service offerings, “MNOs can offer additional broadband services to their customers with FWA solutions,” says Ng. “MNOs can bundle their existing mobile offerings with home and business broadband services. This diversification of services can increase revenue streams and customer loyalty. It is also proven that customers with bundled products may be more likely to stay with the provider. This can help retain customers and reduce the revenue loss due to customers churning to other providers.”
When it comes to spectrum challenges, which remain a topic of much discussion the world over, FWA operating on non-mobile spectrum – like unlicenced 5GHz – can also provide a handy offloading solution for mobile networks.
“It can help alleviate congestion in heavily loaded mobile areas by offloading some data traffic onto the fixed wireless network, thus improving mobile users’ overall quality of service,” says Ng. “Other than this, non-mobile spectrums fee to the regulator is typically much cheaper than mobile spectrums.”
Finally, in the continual search for new sources of revenue, “MNOs can explore partnerships with WISPs or offer wholesale access to their network infrastructure. This can create additional revenue streams by selling access to their existing network to other providers or entering into revenue-sharing agreements,” adds Pak.
The role of AI
AI is expected to significantly impact FWA networks in the future. The benefits are comparable to those for other wireless communications technologies, namely dynamic spectrum management, predictive maintenance, resource allocation, security and threat detection, capacity planning, etc.
“AI can be crucial in optimizing FWA networks. Machine learning (ML) algorithms can analyze real-time network data to identify congestion points, signal interference, and other performance issues,” says Pak. “AI can then dynamically allocate resources, adjust beamforming, and optimize frequency allocation to enhance network performance and deliver consistent, highquality connectivity.”
AI can also assist in dynamic spectrum management. By analysing how different frequency bands are utilised, AI can allocate spectrum resources more efficiently, ensuring that FWA networks operate at peak performance and avoid interference.
Importantly for a relatively new technology, AI/ ML in 5G FWA can be a major boon for enhancing the user experience: “AI can analyze user behaviour and preferences,” outlines Ng. “FWA providers can use AI to offer personalized services, optimize data plans, and provide better customer support through chatbots and virtual assistants.”
It can also be deployed to detect disruptions that impact on the network, and automatically adjust parameters to maintain consistent, high-quality service, reducing customer complaints and churn.
“The impact of AI on FWA networks will depend on the extent to which operators adopt and implement AI technologies, the quality of data available for analysis, and the regulatory environment,” says Pak. “As AI continues to evolve and mature, it is expected to become an integral part of FWA network management, enhancing performance, efficiency, and the overall user experience.”
What’s next for 5G FWA?
FWA services are forecast to gain traction across southeast Asia for the foreseeable. ABI Research reports that the market for southeast Asia is expected to reach 7.8 million subscriptions – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13% – and $2.23 billion in revenues by 2028.
By 2024, 5G FWA will likely be more widely available. Service providers will expand their 5G FWA coverage to reach more urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Indeed, 5G networks will continue to evolve, offering even higher speeds and greater capacity, which will allow 5G FWA to compete more effectively with wired services, supporting more demanding applications like 4k/8k video streaming, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and IoT.
“5G network infrastructure and technology improvements will increase reliability and network stability, reducing latency and ensuring a more consistent user experience,” says Ng. “Dynamic spectrum sharing will become more prevalent, allowing 5G FWA networks to share spectrum resources with other wireless systems, optimizing spectrum utilization and coexistence.”
And with better radio network capabilities and core network evolution, 5G FWA will expand into a wider range of applications like critical communications and IoT. Pak believes that, by next year, there will be a broader ecosystem of 5G FWA devices, including advanced CPEs, routers, and modems, and more devices will support 5G, including IoT and smart home appliances.
Notably, edge computing is expected to play a more significant role in 5G FWA networks, reducing latency and enabling real-time processing for applications like IoT, smart cities, and autonomous vehicles. “5G networks will support network slicing, allowing providers to allocate specific network slices for different services, ensuring quality of service for various applications and industries,” explains Pak.
Despite intense competition with fibre, the future of 5G FWA across southern Asia looks rosy. The integration of AI and ML into 5G FWA network management will enable operators to more efficiently allocate resources, allow predictive maintenance, and enhance user experiences – all positives for sustainability commitments. With more options to connect the underconnected and unconnected in some of the world’s most diverse terrain, 5G FWA is here to stay.
Excerpt from SOUTHERN ASIAN WIRELESS COMMUNICATIONS
Q4 2023 Volume 16 Number 4