FWA vs. FTTH: What Debate?

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The debate has raged for some time as to whether providing internet connections to homes (and businesses) are better served by fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) with fiber optic cable all the way from the telephone central office (CO) to the customer premises, or by fixed wireless access (FWA) for the last mile. Wireless technology performance has evolved and now compares closely to fiber in data throughput and low latency. (Broadband radio equipment vendors use terms like ‘Virtual Fiber’ or ‘Fibeair’) Despite the technology debate, the real issue is price (read, capital expenditures) versus performance.

Consider Verizon. The company has deployed FTTH with its fiber optic system (FiOS) for some time. (Disclosure: I am a FiOS customer). Now, Verizon is rolling out its 5G Home FWA service as a FiOS substitute for internet access and video in markets outside Verizon’s Northeast regional base. 

FTTH capex consists of two elements: cost per home passed (CHP) and cost per home connected (CHC). CHP includes the optical line terminal (OLT) located in a CO, a backbone fiber optic cable along residential streets and an optical splitter in a street-side outside plant box. Splitters separate the incoming optical signal into a different wavelength for each customer. CHP typically runs $1,000-1,500 depending on distance from the CO, whether the cable is buried or aerial, and the number of homes passed. When a customer takes the service, a dedicated FO drop runs from the splitter to the optical network terminal (ONT) at the customer premise. The ONT has multiple ports for the triple play – WiFi, telephone, TV – with connection speeds up to a Gigabit. CHC costs can run another $1,200-1,300. Total capex to deploy FTTH is $2,000-2,500 per subscriber, depending in the take-rates.

FWA, by contrast, eliminates some of the physical infrastructure and reduces overall deployment costs. 5G Home utilizes 28 GHz millimeter (mmW) radio connection between an in-home router and a nearby small cell site. Field tests show that 5G Home service can deliver an average of 300 Mbps download speeds and up to 1 Gbps peak speeds for internet access and streaming video, at up to a couple thousand feet from a nearby cell site. CHP is significantly reduced by utilizing leased dark fiber for the FO backbone and locating the Core Switch/Router virtually in a CO or data center. The small cell site capex is in the order of $25,000, with capacity to serve several dozen subscribers simultaneously over line-of-sight (LOS) or non-line-of-sight (NLOS) connections. CHP drops below $1,000. At the same time, CHC drops significantly with the over-the-air connection and only the 5G Home Router cost. Total FWA capex is in the order of $1,000-1,500 per subscriber, or roughly 50-60 percent of FTTH.

Note that Verizon says 5G Home is the first 5G service in the world … it’s not! The company acknowledges that 5G Home is built to a Verizon Technical Forum standard to be upgraded to the 3GPP 5G New Radio (NR) mobility standard when released next year. Call it ‘pre-5G.’

The case for FWA is compelling, especially with 5G arising but it has its limits. FWA versus FTTH is not a zero-sum game. In the end, market conditions will dictate the better solution for a given application.

John Celentano is a contributing analyst to Inside Towers. He can be reached at [email protected].

By John Celentano for Inside Towers

October 10, 2018

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