Fixed wireless access growth: To 20% homes by 2025

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Fixed wireless access growth forecast

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks use a wireless “last mile” link for the final connection of a broadband service to homes and businesses, rather than a copper, fibre or coaxial cable into the building. Provided mostly by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) or mobile network operators (MNOs), these services come in a wide range of speeds, prices and technology architectures.

Some FWA services are just a short “drop” from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub, while others can work over distances of several kilometres or more in rural and remote areas, sometimes with base station sites backhauled by additional wireless links. WISPs can either be independent specialists, or traditional fixed/cable operators extending reach into areas they cannot economically cover with wired broadband.

There is a fair amount of definitional vagueness about FWA. The most expansive definitions include cheap mobile hotspots (“Mi-Fi” devices) used in homes, or various types of enterprise IoT gateway, both of which could easily be classified in other market segments. Most service providers don’t give separate breakouts of deployments, while regulators and other industry bodies report patchy and largely inconsistent data.

Our view is that FWA is firstly about providing permanent broadband access to a specific location or premises. Primarily, this is for residential wireless access to the Internet and sometimes typical telco-provided services such as IPTV and voice telephony. In a business context, there may be a mix of wireless Internet access and connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, again provided to a specific location or building.

A subset of FWA relates to M2M usage, for instance private networks run by utility companies for controlling grid assets in the field. These are typically not Internet-connected at all, and so don’t fit most observers’ general definition of “broadband access”.

Usually, FWA will be marketed as a specific service and package by some sort of network provider, usually including the terminal equipment (“CPE” – customer premise equipment), rather than allowing the user to “bring their own” device. That said, lower-end (especially 4G) offers may be SIM-only deals intended to be used with generic (and unmanaged) portable hotspots.
There are some examples of private network FWA, such as a large caravan or trailer park with wireless access provided from a central point, and perhaps in future municipal or enterprise cellular networks giving fixed access to particular tenant structures on-site – for instance to hangars at an airport.

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FWA today

Today, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is used for perhaps 8-9% of broadband connections globally, although this varies significantly by definition, country and region. There are various use cases (see below), but generally FWA is deployed in areas without good fixed broadband options, or by mobile-only operators trying to add an additional fixed revenue stream, where they have spare capacity.

Fixed wireless internet access fits specific sectors and uses, rather than the overall market

FWA Use Cases

Source: STL Partners

FWA has traditionally been used in sparsely populated rural areas, where the economics of fixed broadband are untenable, especially in developing markets without existing fibre transport to towns and villages, or even copper in residential areas. Such networks have typically used unlicensed frequency bands, as there is limited interference – and little financial justification for expensive spectrum purchases. In most cases, such deployments use proprietary variants of Wi-Fi, or its ill-fated 2010-era sibling WiMAX.

Increasingly however, FWA is being used in more urban settings, and in more developed market scenarios – for example during the phase-out of older xDSL broadband, or in places with limited or no competition between fixed-network providers. Some cellular networks primarily intended for mobile broadband (MBB) have been used for fixed usage as well, especially if spare capacity has been available. 4G has already catalysed rapid growth of FWA in numerous markets, such as South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Philippines – and 5G is likely to make a further big difference in coming years. These mostly rely on licensed spectrum, typically the national bands owned by major MNOs. In some cases, specific bands are used for FWA use, rather than sharing with normal mobile broadband. This allows appropriate “dimensioning” of network elements, and clearer cost-accounting for management.

Historically, most FWA has required an external antenna and professional installation on each individual house, although it also gets deployed for multi-dwelling units (MDUs, i.e. apartment blocks) as well as some non-residential premises like shops and schools. More recently, self-installed indoor CPE with varying levels of price and sophistication has helped broaden the market, enabling customers to get terminals at retail stores or delivered direct to their home for immediate use.

Looking forward, the arrival of 5G mass-market equipment and larger swathes of mmWave and new mid-band spectrum – both licensed and unlicensed – is changing the landscape again, with the potential for fibre-rivalling speeds, sometimes at gigabit-grade.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • FWA today
    • Universal broadband as a goal
    • What’s changed in recent years?
    • What’s changed because of the pandemic?
  • The FWA market and use cases
    • Niche or mainstream? National or local?
    • Targeting key applications / user groups
  • FWA technology evolution
    • A broad array of options
    • Wi-Fi, WiMAX and close relatives
    • Using a mobile-primary network for FWA
    • 4G and 5G for WISPs
    • Other FWA options
    • Customer premise equipment: indoor or outdoor?
    • Spectrum implications and options
  • The new FWA value chain
    • Can MNOs use FWA to enter the fixed broadband market?
    • Reinventing the WISPs
    • Other value chain participants
    • Is satellite a rival waiting in the wings?
  • Commercial models and packages
    • Typical pricing and packages
    • Example FWA operators and plans
  • STL’s FWA market forecasts
    • Quantitative market sizing and forecast
    • High level market forecast
  • Conclusions
    • What will 5G deliver – and when and where?
  • Index

Predicting the future: Where next for SD-WAN?

Introduction

This document is the third in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing types of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The first two reports in the series are:

Future evolution of SD-WAN

Any decision made about SD-WAN aspects or management must be taken not just in context of enterprises’ current networking challenges, but also in context of how those challenges, as well as networking technology, are likely to evolve. This report assesses where we expect the industry to go next.

At STL Partners, we believe that SD-WAN under its current definition is not an end in itself. All indications are that enterprises are becoming increasingly cloud-centric, and we see no sign of this trend reversing. SD-WAN will no doubt be a key component of the multicloud ecosystem – but it will require an evolution beyond the confines of what is currently being packaged and sold.

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In short, existing SD-WAN services are just the first step on a longer journey towards integrated, software-driven WAN operations and networking on a broader scale. Enterprises and vendors planning SD-WAN rollout would do well to consider how that evolution could unfold.

As with any new technology, there are multiple pathways that this evolution could follow – none of which are yet well-understood. STL Partners has identified three emerging evolution pathways, which we explain in detail below. The options are:

  1. SD-WAN used as the first step towards SD-Branch: SD-WAN is deployed as a stepping stone technology towards more advanced, integrated management of enterprises’ LANs and branches alongside the WAN.
  2. SD-WAN sold “as a Service”: SD-WAN starts to be offered as a more fully cloud-based software service, free from vendor or hardware-based constraints.
  3. SD-WAN used as an enabling component of edge/IoT platforms: SD-WAN features and infrastructure are integrated with service providers’ edge computing and Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, with sales focus on enterprise automation and process optimisation, rather than the SD-WAN component itself.

These options are of course not mutually exclusive and are likely in practice to be adopted in some combination of the different elements. It is quite feasible, for example, that some service providers will start to “upsell” their existing SD-WAN customers onto a more integrated “SD-Branch” offering (#1) – and to sell a flavour of this same offering as a cloud-based software option (#2). Indeed, we have already seen this happening in the marketplace.

In addition, all three options share two things in common:

  • A move towards cloud-centricity: Their focus is on the LAN and branch, WAN (delivered in an even more flexible, cloud-native way), the edge (and edge computing and IoT), respectively.
  • Increasing use of AI technology: Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are pouring into all areas of technology and network infrastructure is no exception. The dynamic nature of traffic patterns over SD-WAN make it a prime candidate for this kind of tech to enable, say, security threat detection or traffic routing optimisation. Whichever direction SD-WAN takes, it is sure to make use of AI/ML.

In this report, we detail each of the three options, with particular reference to how they might benefit both enterprise customers, and those who will provide such SD-WAN services.

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Flavours of SD-WAN: What’s on offer and which work?

Introduction

This is the second in a mini-series of three reports which seek to explore SD-WAN technology from an enterprise perspective, covering the challenges that SD-WAN is designed to address, the differing flavours of SD-WAN product on the market today, and how we envisage SD-WAN-type services evolving in future.

The first and third reports in the series are:

This report examines the role that different types of SD-WAN solutions can play in helping digital enterprises address their growing networking challenges.

SD-WAN as a solution to the networking challenges of digital enterprises

In the first report, we discussed some of these challenges. These revolve around the need to carry a growing range and volume of mission-critical, application-specific data flows – reliably and securely – across a hybrid multi-cloud, multi-domain and distributed WAN environment. This includes different types and sizes of enterprise sites, branches, campuses and remote workers served by diverse access networks on a 24/7 basis.

We highlighted seven main networking challenges that SD-WAN products and services are designed to address, as follows:

  1. Managing the costs of WAN links
  2. Improving control of hybrid WAN and multi-cloud environments
  3. Assuring service and prioritising business-critical traffic
  4. Introducing new sites and capabilities
  5. Preventing attacks and mitigating security risks
  6. Managing different network domains and services across the whole enterprise
  7. Future-proofing enterprises’ advancing requirements while reducing complexity.

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In the present report, we look at SD-WAN in the context of the different flavours currently available on the market, and explore how current offers differ across several aspects:

  • Use of Customer Premises Equipment (dedicated appliance, uCPE or cloud?)
  • Networks used to deliver SD-WAN (overlay, hybrid or dedicated?)
  • Network topologies employed (hub and spoke, partial or full mesh?)
  • Security functions integrated
  • Extension across multiple geographies and domains

Throughout the report, we differentiate between these aspects of SD-WAN and the management requirements and features associated with them.

We also identify some of the leading vendor and service provider products and services that correspond to each of the types we discuss. This is intended for illustration and guidance only and does not constitute a recommendation.

What are the aspects of different SD-WAN deployments?

As set out in the introduction, we are differentiating in this report between aspects of SD-WAN and the management requirements and features associated with each aspect and with SD-WAN as a whole. These are:

Aspects of different SD-WAN deployments

aspects of SD-WAN deployments: CPE, networks, topology, security and extensions across geographies and domains

Source: STL Partners

In the rest of this report we highlight which management elements we regard as more specific to each individual aspect.

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