At Metro Connect USA 2021, we heard about the impact of Covid-19 on the demands for fiber compare to fixed wireless access (FWA).

Chaired by Capacity Media’s Editor-at-large, Alan Burkitt-Gray, the pane consisted of Jason Nicolay, managing director at Houlihan Lokey; Alexander Schwartz, vice president at Tillman Infrastructure; Jack Burton, principal at Broadband Success Partners; and Mirko Voltolini, VP of strategy & innovation at Colt Technology Services.

On the biggest drivers for demand, Schwartz says “the need is universal, it’s ubiquitous”. That said Tilman Infrastructure is devoting its efforts on bridging the gap in the suburban and rural areas and “that’s predominantly where we built most of our towers,” he added. “We are expanding into more urban settings through strategic rooftop managed partnerships.”

Houlihan Lokey’s Nicolay echoed these sentiments saying: “It’s the need for high capacity, whether you’re in New York, or you’re in rural America, that need is there for everybody.” What does differ, however, is what is being delivered explaining “I think the biggest kind of demand is the type of quality of service and speeds that are being delivered toady.”

Burton carried on from Nicolay’s thoughts in that he’s seeing greater demand for an increase the upstream speed, particularly in hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) network providers. “Most HFC networks were constructed with quite different downstream and upstream capabilities, which was great for supporting things like Netflix early on, but when people started to do work from home in a big way and needed more remote learning for schools and telehealth, the upstream started to get congested and operators are kind of scrambling to increase their upstream which is possible with HFC, as it can change the split.”

As a result of this shift operators that had strictly commercial networks are “scrambling” to get into the residential market either by becoming fiber-to-the-home providers or acting as transport for fiber to the home providers.

Interestingly, Colt’s Voltolini saw the pandemic bring with it unexpected growth in voice services driven by the enterprises now working from home. He adds that there has also been “a shift away from traditional dedicated connectivity towards internet access”.

As for the big question on everyone’s lips, fixed wireless versus fiber, the consensus seems to be that a hybrid approach is needed especially when considering things like 5G.

“There’s no 5g without fiber,” said Schwartz. “It’s hard to get any sort of very useful, impactful connectivity without fiber and that need is only going to continue to grow. Same goes for small cells which are going to become increasingly important as networks become more densified.”

Burton also reminds us that with 5G it really is about two different networks “there’s the low band if you will, same spectrum as 4G. And then there’s the millimeter wave 5G, where you get speeds that compete with fiber.” But this, according to Burton, requires so many antennas in a short range from those served in order to deliver the millimeter wave 5G. As such, “you’re probably only going to see that in urban areas that already have fiber infrastructure. So, I really don’t see it as being a threat to either fixed wireless access or fiber or even HFC access.”

As for the role of LEO satellites in the connectivity conversation, Burton says the biggest benefit is in the rural space. “I think what it mostly means is that rural customers will be able to get better service than they have been, if they’ve been able to get any kind of broadband service at all, much quicker than waiting for these fiber-to-the-home builds.”

There is less risk that urban customers are likely to make that switch as there are so many other fiber-based options, that are both competitively priced and deliver high performance connectivity. However, Burton cautions any operators providing “mediocre service” in a rural, suburban or semi urban settings, they risk customers saying “to hell with my local poor provider, I’m going to go to this LEO service.”

Source: “Metro panel champions hybrid approach to fiber and FWA” by Natalie Bannerman, Capacity Media, 25 February 2021