Could fixed wireless access technology be the key to rural connectivity?

15 Apr 2021

Image: © RuthH/Stock.adobe.com

Huawei’s Luca Valentini discusses how fixed wireless access technology works and the role it could play in Ireland’s rural development strategy.

With the increase in remote working, strong connectivity is more important than ever, particularly in rural regions.

At the end of March, the Irish Government launched its rural development plan, a five-year strategy that promises to invest in rural regions after the pandemic.

A key component of this plan is around the increase of rural connectivity through the continued roll-out of the National Broadband Plan and the development of digital hubs around the country.

However, traditional broadband may not be the only solution to Ireland’s connectivity challenges.

Chinese tech giant Huawei works on fixed wireless access (FWA) technology, which provides wireless connectivity through radio links between two fixed points.

While traditional broadband can offer wireless connectivity all around your house, it still requires a wired connection within your home. In contrast, FWA means that radio base stations transmit radio signals to a customer’s equipment, which in turn connects devices such as mobiles, laptops and smart TVs to the internet through Wi-Fi or ethernet connections.

‘Constant innovation is such that FWA services are reliable and able to provide fibre-like experiences in areas where fibre may not be able to serve’
– LUCA VALENTINI

Luca Valentini is an executive wireless product manager at Huawei with more than 25 years’ experience in the telecoms industry. He said FWA technology is not a new concept, with Huawei supporting operators such as Imagine rolling out it out in Ireland.

“For example, WiMax technology has been widely used in the past in different countries including Ireland in order to access the internet in areas where no reliable fixed broadband services were available or where it was more cost-efficient to deploy a wireless technology,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.

“Just like fixed broadband technologies, radio technologies also have made significant progress. Today 4G and its evolution together with new 5G technology are widely used for FWA services to households and enterprises. Constant innovation is such that FWA services are reliable and able to provide fibre-like experiences in areas where fibre may not be able to serve or fibre has not reached yet.”

Valentini added that 5G FWA applications are commonly used in a variety of industries and public services where wired connections would not be suitable, including mining, ports and transportation.

FWA adoption has grown in recent years. In August 2020, Counterpoint Research predicted that FWA subscriptions would rise to nearly a third of the household broadband market and cross half a billion subscriptions globally by 2030. According to Huawei, as of the end of 2020 there were more than 400 4G FWA networks and 40 5G FWA networks launched.

How could FWA tech be implemented in rural Ireland?

One of the key challenges with bringing fixed broadband to rural areas relates to how far apart houses are spread over large areas. This makes the deployment of reliable broadband technology such as fibre costly and time-consuming.

Valentini said FWA can act as a suitable, cost-effective solution in rural areas through the appropriate selection of site locations, multi-antenna solutions, advanced radio features and properly installed outdoor customer-premises equipment (CPE).

“Innovative antenna solutions like Massive MIMO [Massive multiple input multiple output] is the mainstream technology in 5G,” he said.

Massive MIMO essentially groups together antennas at the transmitter and receiver to provide better throughput and better spectrum efficiency.

“The two main advantages brought by Massive MIMO are in the field of coverage and capacity. Usually the up-link – the connection from the CPE to the base station – is the limiting factor when it comes to coverage due to the lower power of CPE. Having more antennas at the receiver side allows the implementation of advanced receiver with a significant improvement in terms of performances,” said Valentini.

“At the same time, this technology brings a significant increase in terms of capacity since it allows to use the same radio/time resources for users which are spatially separated. Advanced radio features both on the radio base station and CPE side are also of paramount importance to provide the best performances to FWA customers.”

While FWA can be a more cost-effective solution compared to traditional broadband in rural areas, it’s not without its challenges as the radio technology involved requires a certain type of skills, advanced radio functionalities and tools. This is particularly important when it comes to verifying and monitoring the radio performances of each FWA user.

Valentini spoke about some of the work Huawei has done to mitigate these challenges, including the development of a platform for customers to verify the quality of the connection in a specific location.

“This functionality is based on a proprietary 3D ray-tracing algorithm and AI spectral efficiency evaluation. Moreover, collecting radio information from both the network and CPE side, this platform is able to verify the performances of each single CPE and identify and solve in advance eventual problems.”

Is FWA the future of connectivity?

While FWA offers an alternative to traditional fibre broadband, Valentini said these technologies are not in competition with each other.

“In urban areas, fibre and advanced fixed broadband are commonly deployed since the cost per household in densely populated area is such that the return of investment is affordable,” he said.

“In rural areas, FWA is the best solution to deploy due to its short return of investment compared to fibre and its performance. Fibre will be slowly deployed up to a point, depending on the amount of private and/or public investment available in each country.”

However, he also said there are situations even in urban areas where FWA could be used instead of fibre, such as areas where it’s not possible to dig or in areas with a lot of short-term rental accommodations. The different needs and various environments mean it is likely that while the use of FWA will grow, it will continue to work alongside fixed broadband.

“FWA has the potential to rapidly accelerate the deployment of high-quality broadband to rural Ireland,” he said.

“As fibre roll-out increases, the role of FWA will continue in reaching the most rural homes and expand in enabling 5G industrial applications that require high-quality low-latency wireless connectivity in rural areas.”

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com