The Industry

How Good is FWA Wireless?

T-Mobile got some bad news recently when the the National Advertising Division (NAD) of BBB National Programs informed T-Mobile that it could not use the words “fast” and “reliable” when advertising for its FWA fixed wireless product that it brands as T-Mobile Home Internet. This ruling came as a result of a complaint from Comcast that T-Mobile is overstating the capabilities of the FWA product in advertising.

Most large carriers belong to the BBB National Programs as a lower cost way of mitigating advertising disputes than lawsuits. ISPS agree to go along with the rulings issued by the group as a condition of joining. However, in this case, T-Mobile is appealing the decision. The news wasn’t all bad for T-Mobile since it was ruled that T-Mobile could continue to advertise that the price of FWA is ‘locked-in” since the company hasn’t raised its rates.

Anybody who has looked closely at the performance of FWA wireless from T-Mobile or Verizon would agree with this ruling. The main reason for the ruling is that the performance of FWA can vary widely. It’s a broadband product that connects to customers from a cell site, and the distance between a customer and the cell site makes a big difference in the speed being delivered. I talked to one customer located near to a T-Mobile tower who was consistently getting over 200 Mbps download and was really pleased with the product. But in this same community, customers only a mile or so away from that same cell tower were getting speeds closer to 50-100 Mbps and were not as happy with the product. A mile further away and speeds were not good at all, and I talked to a farmer who sent the receiver back. In a rural area, a mile isn’t very far, and unless there are a lot of towers, most folks are not getting the advertised fast speeds.

The one consistent feedback I’ve gotten in talking to FWA customers is that speeds vary. This is true for all cellular broadband, and cell phone customers are used to seeing a different number of bars of broadband speed over time from the same location such as home or the office. Cellular data speeds vary for a wide variety of reasons like temperature and weather.

But the biggest reason for the variability is the overall volume of data being demanded from a given cell site at a given moment. Like most broadband products, cellular broadband is a shared data product where the broadband is divvied up among the users at any given time. But unlike landline broadband networks, a cellular company cannot control the number of users at a cell site. Since cell phones are mobile, there is no telling how many people might be demanding a cellular data connection at any given time.

FWA has one more limitation in that the cellular carriers have elected to give first priority to cell phones over FWA customers. This means that when a cell site gets busy, the carrier will choke the delivered data speeds to FWA customers in order to deliver the most speed possible to cellular customers. This makes sense since each big T-Mobile and Verizon have roughly 100 million cellular customers compared to a few million FWA customers. They do not want to make cellular customers unhappy with broadband speeds, and so they throttle FWA when a cell site gets busy.

T-Mobile doesn’t hide this, and the throttling is discussed in the fine print when the product is advertised. But that throttling is part of the reason that T-Mobile can’t describe it’s product as reliable – because at busy times it isn’t.

The big selling point for FWA is the low price and I’m sure the price is what attracted urban customers. The speeds are going to be liked in rural areas where there are no alternatives, but there is definitely a severe distance limitation – in a rural area a 50 Mbps connection might be a big leap up in performance. But the FWA product is a lot slower than cable company broadband. Households who are heavy broadband users might not like the slower speeds and the variability. This ruling is telling T-Mobile that it can’t advertise in a way that makes FWA sound like an equivalent alternative to cable or fiber broadband, because it isn’t. It’s going to be interesting to see how T-Mobile adjusts it’s advertising after this ruling.

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