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Upgrades for FWA Cellular Wireless

In the recent third quarter earnings call, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg expressed strong support and belief in the future of the company’s FWA wireless broadband product. This product provides home and business broadband that uses the same cellular spectrum used today to provide bandwidth for cellphones.

There is good reason for the company to be optimistic about the broadband product. In only a few short years the company has added almost 2.7 million FWA customers, and most of its broadband customer growth in the third quarter of this year came from FWA. As noted by Vestberg, rapid growth has continued even after the company increased the price of the product by $10 per month.

As I have addressed in several blogs, there are some limitations on the current FWA product. The biggest downside is that the fast speeds advertised for FWA by Verizon and T-Mobile are only available for customers that live within a mile or so of a cell tower. Speeds seem to cut in half in the second mile from a tower and drop significantly by the third mile.

Another drawback is that both Verizon and T-Mobile throttle the bandwidth for FWA any time that cellphone usage gets heavy. In scouring through multiple speed tests, we have found customers who vary between fast and extremely slow speeds – which might be evidence of this throttling.

But Vestberg mentioned a big technology boost that will be coming to the Verizon FWA product. Verizon purchased a lot of C-Band spectrum in an FCC auction in 2021. This is spectrum that sits between 3.7 GHz and 3.98 GHz. The licensed spectrum provides Verizon with anywhere from 140 MHz to 200 MHz of cellular bandwidth in markets across the country.

Vestberg says the company is starting to upgrade busy urban towers with the extra C-Band spectrum. He implied that the upgrades will be coming to other urban towers and some suburban towers in 2024.

He said the C-Band spectrum will double or triple the cellular bandwidth depth in most markets. He said that using the new spectrum for FWA could result in speeds as fast as 900 Mbps to 2.4 Gbps. Like all speed claims made by ISPs, those speeds are likely faster than anybody will see in real life and probably represent theoretical maximums. However, FWA users can expect a big boost in speeds, particularly those living near towers.

I have to assume that Verizon has already built C-Band capabilities into its home FWA receivers, so speed upgrades ought to be realized immediately after an upgrade. A lot of the newest cell phones also already include C-Band capabilities. Verizon seems to have the most aggressive plan for C-Band, but AT&T has started to deploy the spectrum in a few markets. T-Mobile owns C-Band spectrum, but still seems to be hanging on the sidelines for upgrades.

Significant speed increases to FWA can make the product into a potent competitor to cable companies, at least for customers within a close distance of a cellular tower. The FWA prices are far lower than the prices charged by the big cable companies for broadband, and fast speeds can make this a viable alternative.

The first generation of FWA has delivered speeds in the 100-300 Mbps range. That has been fast enough to attract millions of customers. But the first generation product has felt more like a big upgrade to DSL rather than a direct threat to cable companies. But if the current speeds are really doubled or tripled, many households are going to be attracted by the lower prices on FWA. It’s an interesting product to market since the attractiveness for customers is in a direct relationship to the strength of the cellular signal that reaches their home –  an extremely local situation.

7 replies on “Upgrades for FWA Cellular Wireless”

Interesting. Somewhat counter to Craig Moffet’s great comment in that:

“a broadband household uses about 50 to 70 times more data than a wireless phone subscriber does. And yet, they only generate about 20% more revenue. So, on a revenue per bit basis, fixed wireless broadband are serving the wireless broadband market generates about 1/50th as much revenue per bit as wireless does. It is so unattractive economically on a relative basis that you would only do it if you were just a wash in excess capacity. You couldn’t think of anything else to use your capacity for.”

He does go on to say ” it’s not clear it’s going to stay the case” which you’re confirming. I guess as you say they’ve learned they can prioritize voice without customers complaining *too* much. And the market is tolerating speed dependency on distance to their tower.

That’s an interesting point. The cellular carriers are clearly monetizing their excess capacity. I’m not sure that evaluating that on a per bit basis is the right way to look at it, because the number folks just look at the new revenues that don’t come with very much incremental new costs.

The engineers at the cellular carriers must be frustrated because cell sites were not designed to handle customers that use steady broadband for a long time, like streaming, gaming, and working from home. The engineers also must be looking at the long term growth pattern for home broadband and shuddering, because in five years, what is using excess capacity today might be more bandwidth than a cell site can handle.

I’m thinking the carriers are banking on upgrading at some point to true 5G where they could direct beam-formed traffic to broadband customers and probably do it on a different spectrum. That’s the only scenario that doesn’t have cell sites crashing as home broadband usage conflicts with cellphone usage as both keep increasing.

That is an interesting picture you present of the future. I’m glad I’m not in their shoes trying to figure out how to engineer a product that marketing maybe sold without enough study. I can testify that cell coverage, just for basic calls and messaging has taken a 50% reduction in quality all around us. It’s terrible. Where there is service it’s fast, but the edges are terrible crunchy and the gaps are growing.

I’ll second that mobiles services have declined radically over the paste year or two as they’ve brought on FWA subscribers. I wish I know the metrics of this to verify but it’s a noticable degredation.

I’ve also shared the opinion that cell companies are basically betting that they’ll get more support from the FCC, more spectrum, more rights, whatever, to support their new oversell numbers.

Doug — you’re right that cost per bit isn’t the best metric, but it has some use, especially if one is spectrum constrained.

5G is no sliver bullet. It’s really just an upgrade.

We’ve tried just about every option available to our home (suburban WDC), and the winner by far is FiOS. No problems with clouds, no problems with long distance to the node, no caps or throttling. We can have 4 computers and a TV or two all simultaneously using WiFi, and someone can still call on the home phone (… Yes, we still have one — the cost is de minimus!).
A few months ago, we tried the T-Mobile FWA offering, and it just didn’t cut it with one computer and TV going. Latency was horrendous…
We have not tried VZ FWA, but see no point in trying it in our current location… unless FiOS or some other fiber offering is unavailable. I am not a big fan of Verizon — they act too much like an old-fashioned monopolist — but you can’t beat FiOS.

I wouldn’t gibe FiOS too much credit here, I think there are many different solutions that perform really similarly ie when compared to cellular FWA they all look fantastic.

FWA has this glaring problem of demand shifting because of mobile users. Got a conferance at the hotel near your house with a bunch of people using hotspots? degredation. Family next door gets a black friday upgrade to all new 5G phones? degredation. Your neighbor across the street signs up for VZW FWA? degredation.

IMO, we should eliminate the mixing of mobile and FWA services.

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