As the industry continues to speculate on how widely fixed 5G will be deployed, we thought it would be interesting to find out what the nation’s largest wireless ISP thinks about the technology and the business case for suburban fixed 5G. Rise Broadband is focused entirely on wireless broadband and has grown to be the largest U.S. wireless ISP after making multiple acquisitions.
Fixed 5G and “5G-like” equipment is already available from “a couple of vendors,” explained Rise Broadband co-founder Jeff Kohler in our interview. As Kohler sees it, fixed 5G “is primarily for increasing capacity in densely populated areas. For our company and for a lot of the wireless ISP industry, it’s not something that so much applies to what we do because we’re primarily rural service providers. The problem we’re solving for in rural America is more coverage than capacity.”
Nevertheless, Kohler sees a potential market for fixed 5G — and it would involve certain wireless ISPs (WISPs) “edging in” toward the more densely populated suburban portion of metro markets.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of companies edging in to take advantage of the technology” said Kohler regarding fixed 5 wireless. “It’s the very early stage. The equipment is still a little expensive but shows a lot of promise.”
Suburban Fixed 5G
To compete in suburban markets, WISPs will have to offer broadband speeds comparable with those offered by telcos and cable companies – and in comparison with other fixed wireless options, fixed 5G wireless is designed to support higher speeds.
To support those high speeds, the fixed 5G wireless equipment that Kohler has seen operates at millimeter wave frequencies.
“24 GHz- and [higher-frequency] millimeter wave is really the only real estate there is for 5G services that allow wider channels and allow an operator to imitate fiber-like speeds,” explained Kohler – a phenomenon that also applies to mobile 5G wireless.
Another consideration is antenna size. Manufacturers are putting more antennas in a single unit using massive MIMO, thereby enabling network operators to transmit from and receive for multiple users with the same piece of equipment. That can’t be done at sub-6 GHz frequencies without having an “extremely large piece of gear that would be difficult or impossible” to install, Kohler said.
The downside of using millimeter wave frequencies – for fixed or mobile 5G wireless – is that signals do not travel as far as they do at lower frequencies. While some 5G fixed wireless gear costs only a relatively small amount more than other fixed wireless options, “you need to buy a lot more of it” because of the limited range, noted Kohler.
Because fixed 5G wireless equipment supports high speeds, however, network operators will be able to charge more for the service, Kohler said. And even though the investment required will be higher than for other types of fixed wireless, he said the cost of deploying service “should be” less than the cost of deploying wireline infrastructure.
WISPs also may be able to use millimeter wave wireless as backhaul for suburban deployments, Kohler noted – an approach he said equipment maker Mimosa Networks already supports.
One major telecom company that seems to agree with Kohler’s assessment about suburban fixed 5G is Verizon, whose CEO has said he sees a potential addressable market of 30 million households outside the company’s traditional territory.
Samsung will be providing equipment operating in the 28 GHz millimeter wave spectrum band for the fixed 5G wireless deployments that Verizon is planning for this year. Verizon holds licenses for the 28 GHz band and some other millimeter wave spectrum.
Kohler noted, though, that network operators also will have the option of using unlicensed millimeter wave spectrum in the 60 GHz band to support fixed 5G wireless deployments.
What About Rise?
Kohler has not yet seen the need in rural areas that Rise serves for the multi-hundred-megabit speeds that millimeter wave fixed 5G wireless can support. Broadband at speeds of 20 Mbps is sufficient for most customers, Kohler said. He noted that Rise offers 100 Mbps service in some areas, but 20 Mbps is still the company’s most popular offering, even in those areas where 100 Mbps service is available.
Kohler acknowledged, though, that customers may eventually need more bandwidth. When they do, he anticipates being able to upgrade bandwidth for many of them by swapping out customer premises equipment. Equipment installed deeper in the network, he said, has a life expectancy of seven to 10 years.
Moving forward, Kohler also sees distinctions between fixed 5G and other wireless technologies blurring.
Pointing to massive MIMO as an example, he said “we’re seeing the best practices from other standards going into 5G and also seeing others borrowing pieces from the 5G standard.”