Even today, there is a sizeable U.S. population without internet connectivity. The majority of this population are rural households who either lack in-home broadband service or have few options for in-home broadband. And so, for this community, affordable connectivity remains largely out of reach. While fiber broadband would be the ideal solution, developing new infrastructure and even the trenching work required for fiber remains a significant challenge for broadband connectivity providers. A number of promising policies including the Global Connect Initiative and Advancing the Deployment of Broadband Through Dig Once are offering hope. Both were launched to bring cost savings, increase access to reliable broadband, and assist with faster deployment when a conduit is already in place. These policy initiatives are meant to help realize public and economic benefits. Improving access to broadband leads to prosperity and new opportunities where service is affordable and available.
At Cisco, we believe that affordability and connectivity should not be at odds with one another. To change this dynamic, and build towards a more inclusive future, we have been working to change the economics of the internet. The digital divide came to the forefront during the shift to remote work and learning prompted by the 2020 pandemic, exposing under-served communities and their lack of access to broadband. For communities without infrastructure already trenched in the ground, the use of mobile wireless broadband has become a lifeline for remote work, learning, and even telehealth. In this new era of hybrid work, 5G mobile broadband is an effective solution for extending reliable connectivity into underserved rural and suburban areas. While mobile broadband technology has been around awhile, it is just now, at the tail end of the 4G era and the beginnings of 5G with access to new mid-band and high-band spectrum, that mobile wireless broadband is becoming a serviceable reality. Communication Service Providers (CSPs) that have been slowed or even disincentivized by the time and cost of trenching new cable are recalculating and redressing the value of the last mile using Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) service for rural and suburban communities.
Why Fixed Wireless Access?
Fixed Wireless Access is a great tool for reducing the digital divide when it comes to accessibility and affordability. The economics for providing Internet services were in need of a change and FWA offers some good ones – reducing trenching requirements, increasing serviceable area, offering self-install customer equipment (CPE), and even providing a common wireless network architecture that can serve both Fixed Wireless Access and Mobile Access services.
When considering our approach to designing 5G networks, a guiding principle has been to improve through simplification, because managing one network and one core is simpler than managing two. The architectural differences between 4G and 5G are significant and many operators saw 5G NSA as the simplest route to early 5G, where you can introduce some limited 5G functions and features on top of existing 4G infrastructure. But 5G NSA is just a half-measure, affording a small amount of the 5G goodness we hear so much about. The next step, getting to 5G SA, is a significant achievement in network transformation for the few CSPs who have managed to accomplish the task.
Growing Fixed Wireless Access from 4G to 5G
With 5G SA new service capabilities can be explored without the limitations of the legacy architecture. Take 5G Fixed Wireless Access for example, unlike previous generations’ architectures, a 5G SA’s network architecture can flexibly deploy User Plane Function (UPF) nodes to anchor a FWA subscriber’s user plane traffic for peering at the nearest edge aggregation point. Unlike a typical mobile device such as a cell phone, fixed wireless devices are meant to be always-on and connected for serving end user devices. Meaning that the latency and reliability we commonly expect from traditional wireline services is expected from fixed wireless services too.
Even though Fixed Wireless Access isn’t new and 4G LTE FWA services have existed for several years, transitioning into 5G technologies for FWA services is a big step towards achieving the scale that rivals FTTx offerings. As a matter of fact, T-Mobile has already begun scaling up their 5G Fixed Wireless Access services, smoothly transitioning from their initial 4G service offering, using our Cisco Converged Core. The process has been so smooth, that in the 2022, T-Mobile became the fastest growing Internet service provider—doubling their number of FWA customers in the past six months. With over 2 million FWA subscribers and counting, the scalability and flexibility of having a Converged Core has proven invaluable. Being able to deploy UPF nodes for Fixed Wireless Access in remote locations while managing the Session Management Function (SMF) nodes at a central site(s) is effective for scaling the network, optimizing the usage of the transport infrastructure to deliver better end-user latency
Of course, having a Converged Core is just a piece of the 5G puzzle. A service like Fixed Wireless Access leverages the Radio Access Network (RAN), converged Software Defined Network (SDN) transport, and a whole host of policy, security, management, and automation components. Additionally, managing the spectral efficiency and capacity available on the existing network infrastructure for FWA services are important for delivering wireless broadband. It is estimated that around 70 percent of communication service providers today offer a form of Fixed Wireless Access services, most of them still using 4G LTE which delivers a fraction of the performance of fiber. Upgrading network architectures to meet the needs of new 5G services needs a smooth plan for the transition and at Cisco, we believe that can begin in the core. With a Converged Core, communication service providers can migrate from 4G to 5G without disruption while scaling to serve the needs of millions of new subscribers.
For More Information
Learn more about the Cisco Converged Core, and how we are helping rural communities bridge the digital divide. Find out how T-Mobile and Cisco Launched the World’s Largest Cloud Native Converged Core Gateway, read the December 2022 press release.