One of the best ways to know when a new technology is a threat is when one of the big telcos or cable companies begins talking badly about it. The most recent case in point comes from a recent conference covered by LightReading where Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that Comcast is not worried about competition from FWA (cellular wireless) technology. He was quoted as saying that FWA is an “inferior technology” that will not remain viable for the long term.
Realistically, Comcast and the other big ISPs have to be concerned about FWA technology. T-Mobile added 546,000 customers to the product in 2021, and Verizon added 173,000 – with most of the additions coming near the end of the year. MoffettNathanson says that FWA broadband accounted for 38% of all broadband customer gains in the fourth quarter. Bloomberg says that FWA accounted for 22% of all new broadband customers for the whole year of 2021. T-Mobile said that much of its growth came from urban and suburban customers formerly served by cable companies.
The FWA market is just getting started. T-Mobile says it has a target of serving seven to eight million homes by the end of 2026. Verizon says it is already passing 15 million homes with the technology and plans to be passing 30 million homes by the end of 2023. We don’t know the specific goals for Dish, but the newest big cellular carrier will start hitting the market this summer, and the company says it plans to have aggressive pricing.
Roberts is right in that FWA bandwidth cannot compete with the speeds of cable broadband. Comcast has increased its download speeds to a minimum of 200 Mbps for a new broadband connection and has a top speed of 1.2 Gbps. But that misses the point. FWA is targeting those households that have modest broadband needs or who want to save money. If a Comcast customer isn’t getting any discounts, the cost of basic broadband is over $90 when adding in the $14 charge to get a broadband modem. FWA products are priced between $50 and $60, and Dish is likely to be even lower. The FWA companies are competing for the households that care about price more than speed.
However, many houses will find the FWA product to be fast enough. Ookla speed test results for February 2022 show the nationwide average download speed for FWA at 146 Mbps, with the average upload at almost 21 Mbps. It’s worth noting that the FWA upload speeds are faster than the average speeds I’ve seen in any market for cable companies – which typically is closer to 15 Mbps.
It’s somewhat ironic for a cable company to say that the FWA technology is inferior because the cable companies have spent the last year lobbying hard not to set the definition of broadband to be any faster than 100/20 Mbps. That means Comcast believes that what FWA service is broadband.
Roberts’s major objection is that FWA is not a future-looking technology. That sounds like a valid point since the growth in broadband demand will probably mean that a decade from now we’ll think that 150/20 Mbps will feel like a slow broadband product. I’m not sure that carriers a lot of legs for customers who want to save money today.
But what Roberts is failing to acknowledge is the pending upgrade in six or seven years to real 5G. That technology will be able to right-size broadband connections for each customer according to the demand, and it’s likely that 5G speeds might eventually climb to as much as a gigabit – although that’s going to require the cellular companies to dump a lot of broadband into each neighborhood small cell site. But speeds on FWA will certainly be much faster a decade from now. In my mind, that’s the real threat of FWA to cable companies.
Of more immediate concern for cellular companies will be maintaining the 150/20 Mbps speeds recently measured by Ookla. These FWA products are being delivered by the same cell sites that deliver voice and data to cellphones, and the cellular carriers have all said that their cellular customers will get first priority at cell sites. If the cellular carriers sell too many FWA customers from a given cell site, there is a good chance that those customers will collectively drag down the overall speeds at a cell site. As long as this service is using 4G LTE technology, there are absolute caps on the amount of broadband a given cell site can deliver at a given time. Cellular carriers can make sure this is not a problem by not selling too many FWA customers in a given neighborhood. But that would require restraint, and I can’t think of a time when any big ISP ever restricted sales.