Will 28 GHz Work for Consumer Gigabit Access?

“Will it work?” is a question more executives are going to be looking at, where it comes to fixed wireless platforms for Internet access. Technology issues (coverage, rain fade, interference) are important, as always.

Just as important are the payback questions: can the new networks deliver enough bandwidth, far enough, to be a functional substitute for fiber access, at prices consumers will pay?

Executives have been asking these sorts of questions for decades.

If you have been around long enough, you have seem several iterations of the “fixed wireless is the answer” for access operations, for a number of potential audiences and customer segments, in a number of different settings.

The rise of competition in the long distance voice communications business was pioneered by Microwave Communications Inc. (MCI), which used point-to-point microwave to compete with the AT&T system in the 1980s.

Also in the 1980s, point-to-point microwave was seen as a platform for educational TV. The MMDS bands (2.5 GHz to 2.7 GHz), also originally licensed for educational TV, were repurposed for delivery of multichannel television subscriptions. Now those bands are available for mobile communications.  

Sprint is a major holder of former MMDS spectrum, for example.

Fixed wireless now is enjoying something of a renaissance, as firms including Google, Facebook, Verizon and AT&T now are testing new forms of fixed wireless, including but not limited to use of new 5G spectrum, and also millimeter wave bands.

The attractions are the same as ever: fixed wireless promises lower deployment costs and access to additional customer locations that otherwise would lack a payback model.

That is especially important for fixed network providers faced with higher levels of competition, and therefore lower potential addressable market, higher risks of stranded investment and growing demands for consumer bandwidth at gigabit speeds.

The value is highest for providers not using the cable TV hybrid fiber coax platform, which can reach gigabit speeds on already-deployed platforms.

Some tests suggest signal propagation at 28 GHz will not be as big a problem as many fear.

In fact, the LMDS band has been available for decades, originally as a platform for TV distribution, and later viewed as a platform for high-bandwidth communications for business customers in urban markets.

What remains unknown is how much propagation distances might change as 28 GHZ is adapted for small cell network architectures, instead of point-to-point links. In an earlier period, reach of 1.5 miles was routine for point-to-point links, and distances up to three to five miles sometimes were possible.

In a new small cell deployment, transmitting at lower power, distances of 1,000 meters (about 0.6 miles) might be reasonable.

We do not have all the answers, yet. What we do know is that reasonable people believe technology advances will offer a better solution than possible in the past, just at a point when gigabit speeds are market necessities, and deployment costs are more crucial than ever.
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