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The big interview: cutting out cable

Jaime Fink, CTO and co-founder of Mimosa Networks, speaks to Sam Fenwick about the growing fixed wireless access market and the pitfalls of trying to use complex user equipment to allow self-installation.

Last year saw fixed wireless access (FWA) move firmly into the spotlight, with many of the mobile network operators in the US looking to 5G-based FWA as a means of capturing fixed-line business and avoiding the costs of fibre to the premises (FTTP).

At the same time, Jaime Fink, CTO and co-founder of Mimosa Networks, a supplier of fibre-fast wireless broadband solutions, says even though the US and UK governments have heavily focused on funding projects aimed at connecting the unconnected, the sums available have made it difficult to meet the operators’ deployment commitments with fibre. Accordingly, in the US, most of the top-tier operators are adapting to use FWA to serve high-cost rural communities.

Fink says: “We’ve proven that speeds of 25-250Mbps can be deployed affordably in many rural areas using just the existing unlicensed wireless spectrum. We’ve taken advantage of new low-cost wireless silicon, spectrum reuse synchronisation and interference-handling technologies to deliver these disruptive speeds. The current challenges are a shortage of licensed (protected) spectrum, which larger service providers prefer, and accessing lower-frequency spectrum to reach further into heavily forested rural areas.

“Larger telcos consider venturing into unlicensed territory a risky endeavour. Most of them will do it to learn everything they need to learn, because they can do it right now and know that they can get the funding to do it, but most of it is a learning effort so that they’re prepared when the licences finally come.

“Providers are realising that they absolutely have to move into new spectrum, and for the most part they’re asking themselves, on a geography basis, ‘What am I trying to accomplish, what are my needs for cellular, and what are my needs for broadband?’”

Fink says this is where the conventional wisdom about the need for standardised solutions might not apply as, while operators will want to use them in bands that are good for both mobile and fixed wireless access, “we’re mostly talking about new spectrum, and a lot of that spectrum is not very viable for coverage in residential suburban and rural areas; once you get into the mid-band, you’re talking about very short ranges for mobile”.

He adds: “The carriers are more focused on the return on investment and the cost to deploy a broadband service versus worrying about whether it is a potential hybrid band that they could use for mobile and fixed. They’re realising that 3GPP standards-based solutions can be five to 10 times the cost in some cases with a lot of the new millimetre wave and massive MIMO technologies, compared with the much more affordable fixed wireless equipment coming out from companies like Mimosa.

“I certainly have no intent at this point for our fixed wireless technology to move towards 3GPP because it simply would carry much of the tax of the mobile network, [avoiding that] is the real value of doing something non-standard.”

One area where Mimosa differs from the strategies being pursued by the large carriers is its approach to installation and the complexity of user equipment. “They’ve [the large carriers] spent a huge amount of time talking up the concept of self-installation, which they claim is critical for them to be able to get to scale.

“However, that means you need much more expensive beam-forming antennas for aiming assistance, and complex designs to try to cope with signal loss through windows. According to the carriers’ public statements, it’s costing them nearly $800 for equipment for a single home, and that doesn’t include the cost of covering the area.

“We’ve opted for the lowest-cost, highest-reliability solution, which is a high-gain, professionally installed solution that costs well below $100 for the house-mounted equipment. Installation doesn’t drive the overall CAPEX – when you streamline the process, it takes about an hour; roughly $100-$150 worth of installer time. We believe we are one third to one quarter of the cost of current self-installable 5G solutions.”

Fink sees another issue with many US companies’ 5G fixed wireless strategies: “Their valuation and investment appeal is totally dependent on the perception that they will be able to serve a lot of people from very few locations because that will keep their costs down. But we’ve learned that in dense residential areas it is nearly impossible to service enough homes from existing towers.

Our preference is to engineer it right and get closer into neighbourhoods to address more homes, and accommodate the huge capacity demand from fixed subscribers who typically consume 100 times the traffic of cellular users on average. Rural areas, on the other hand, don’t have capacity problems, so it is possible to service subscribers from towers. The markets you’re trying to serve dictate the decisions you need to make.

“People ask how rural areas can be connected affordably – it’s not by auctioning the spectrum in a traditional mobile format in these low-density areas. We hope to see a lot more progress on intelligent rules as it relates to these communities, the cost basis that reflects the area you’re trying to service and the application that you’re trying to service.”

Aside from the residential market, Fink sees fixed wireless access providing most value to agricultural communities, given their demand for very high connectivity. “Ten or 25Mbps is not going to service a farm that needs HD cameras for monitoring and data collection for IoT. It’s quite inexpensive now to use point-to-point – and in some cases, point-to-multipoint if the densities are high enough – to serve the rural agricultural community. We’re seeing this demand in the UK.

“Wireless also brings opportunities for operators to rapidly connect businesses by building a backbone with wireless backhaul, and bring bandwidth into areas they probably couldn’t have afforded to enter with fibre or by serving consumers alone.

“In areas with significant coaxial cable deployments, which began as a TV medium 50 years ago, many operators only connected consumers rather than businesses. In the US alone, there are over half a million small and medium-sized businesses within 100-300 metres of a cable operator’s aerial strand.

“Many people wildly underestimate the speed at which FWA can be deployed – it allows operators to grow revenue much faster than with cable or FTTP and avoids the two to three years of planning that’s involved with stringing cables in places where they didn’t previously exist.”

Fink says fixed wireless operators still run into a lot of unintentional obstacles to deployment at the local government and municipality level, such as long planning processes, and these are “a severe challenge”. However, he adds there is “a huge rallying cry in the US to streamline a lot of those processes”. Fink is part of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and says “almost all of its efforts are really to help streamline guidelines for cities and municipalities to make it easier and faster for people to put equipment up in areas and deploy broadband more quickly, through the use of standardised best practices”.

Turning to spectrum availability, Fink highlights the massive decline in the use of the Satellite C-Band, as paid-for TV content delivery is moving away from satellite and towards fibre. In addition, “as we move towards all the content going 4K in the long term, there’s not enough spectrum to be able to deliver 4K over satellite for all the channels that are necessary.

“The TV industry is changing massively and that means there’s a lot of spectrum that really should be reconsidered for how it’s used, given that IP-based networks, cellular, wireless and fixed are really becoming the mainstream need that we have in the long run.”

With recent moves from the UK government and Openreach suggesting the push to deliver broadband for the businesses and communities that have been previously been left high and dry is kicking into gear, and the high cost of FTTP, the UK seems ripe for greater use of FWA.

While – as Fink has identified – there are pitfalls for the unwary, the amount of ‘learning by doing’ that is going on in the US market is encouraging, and with operators searching for ways to monetarise 5G, the FWA space is definitely one to watch.