When FWA starts to make sense

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) attracts a huge range of opinions, but at Light Reading’s Big 5G Event, Starry put forward an interesting case.

Starry Internet is a fixed wireless broadband Internet service provider, founded in January 2016, operating across a small number of US cities. What makes Starry different from many of the other cable providers is an exclusive focus on FWA.

As a technology, FWA has certainly split opinion. Some see it as a 5G usecase which could justify the vast expenditure on the future-proofed networks, while others believe it is a distraction from what should be the ultimate goal; rolling out full-fibre broadband to all premises.

While we can see there are some niche usecases for FWA, we do not believe it is a viable alternative for fibre-based broadband solutions, the Starry proposition makes a valid case which will be attractive for some broadband challengers.

“People are dying for choice,” Starry COO Alex Moulle-Berteaux said during his keynote session.

Over the first 18 months of Starry’s existence, the firm managed to set up a FWA network which covers two thirds of Boston premises. Although Moulle-Berteaux hasn’t unveiled subscription numbers, the progress has been solid enough to fuel expansion into other US cities.

What is remarkably impressive is Starry managed to deploy this significant FWA network in Boston for less than $5 million.

Moulle-Berteaux also claims the firm has experienced a 20% uptake when connecting a multi-dwelling residence in the first 60-90 days. Promising 200 Mbps, down and up, the team are targeting the cord cutters, offering internet connectivity exclusively, potentially reduce monthly out-goings.

This is why the FWA case is attractive to some. Low cost of entry, Moulle-Berteaux highlighted the use of unlicensed spectrum is helping here, the ability to deliver high speeds and speak to a generation of customers who are increasingly becoming sick of the traditional relationship with connectivity and content providers.

That said, while this is an attractive proposition, we can’t see around the idea that FWA is incredibly short-termist.

Yes, the speeds delivered now are promising and there are certainly prospects to increase further, there will be limitations. Mobile connectivity is always going to be second-best when measured against fibre-based broadband, because physics.

Fibre is the fastest and most reliable connection. It works by emitting and receiving a light signal through the cables that represents binary code. FWA can deliver speeds faster than copper-based broadband, but it’s airborne and a little more prone to external factors. FWA is an alternative, but telcos can get distracted by short-term gains leading to long-term pain. Just look at the BT decision to prioritise G.Fast over fibre. It’s a similar business decision.

However, the US is a market where there might be a valuable role for FWA propositions. As Moulle-Berteaux highlighted, customers like choice and due to the lack of competition in the broadband market, are becoming frustrated with their current providers. This frustration will explain why Starry has been successful in hoovering up subscriptions.

We’re still not convinced by the FWA promise. Fibre is a long-term solution which all providers should be striving towards and there is a risk FWA will become a distraction. However, there are cases where the value is incredibly high. In the US, where many customers are becoming frustrated with a lack of competition, we might have a validated usecase.

The edge takes centre stage (again)

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the edge was one of the most prominent topics and the same can be said in Denver at Light Reading’s Big 5G Event.

The edge itself is a relatively easy concept to understand, but in reality, the deployment and evolution are much more complicated facets. It is usually the case that the biggest potential or most promising developments are the most difficult to achieve, but it does seem there is resistance continued resistance to change.

“I don’t think we are doing 5G right, we are too obsessed by being faster,” said Telus CTO Ibrahim Gedeon.

This is a message which is becoming increasingly frequent, and while the frequency is encouraging, an some point the walk is going to have to follow the talk. At this event, Telus, Equinix, AT&T, T-Mobile US and Verizon have all preached the benefits of moving beyond a ‘bigger, faster, meaner’ business model which is focused on speeds, but soon enough some might assume these are simply statements to appease the masses.

In terms of the future of the telco world, those telcos who maintain the status quo, focusing on speeds, will march down the path of commoditisation. Those who challenge themselves, taking on the incredibly difficult challenge of evolving the business, will find additional value and redefine themselves as a ‘Digital Service Provider’. And the edge is a very important component of that.

“Does 5G need edge, yes,” said Jim Poole, VP of Ecosystem Business Development at Equinix. “But does edge need 5G, no.”

This is a tricky position and a conundrum often faced in the telco and technology world. For some, the path forward does often look like a solution in search of a problem. It might not sound like the most attractive path, especially when there is the simplistic and more instantly gratifying pursuit of increased speeds.

It all depends on what the telco actually wants. As Mitch Wagner of Light Reading pointed out, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the utility business model, these are companies which do make money and are often much safer bets, but this is not what the majority of telcos want in the future.

The answer is relatively plain if utilitisation is to be avoided; add more value to the ecosystem. This is where the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft have been successful. They have embraced the idea of a solution looking for a problem, demonstrated the value in disrupting the status quo and proved to the world new is better. For the telcos, this means embracing the unknown.

The edge is that unknown for the moment. Yes, the edge exists in the 4G world, but there is much more value in the 5G era. It is a case of putting the cart before the horse, but as it was pointed out today, creating a proposition which is defined by the edge offers a new dynamic, encourages the imaginations of a new type of developer and creates new services. Telcos can be fundamental in delivering the foundations of these new businesses, products and services, but they need to disrupt themselves and create a new organization.

This again is a statement which is not new. This week and countless other conferences have seen executives preach the promise of evolution, but sooner or later the telcos are going to have to replace talking with walking.

The time of rhetoric is coming to an end, we need to see progress in these transformation initiatives.

Focusing on 5G speed is missing the point – Verizon

5G has been promising a lot, such is the industry’s inability to keep a handle on hype, but the winners and losers of tomorrow’s connected world might well be those who are able to think a bit differently.

The focus of the morning keynote sessions at Light Reading’s Big 5G Event has had much more of a commercial focus than perhaps we are used to. The challenges of deploying a 5G network at scale and pace are intimidating, but the business model to ensure this isn’t a colossal waste of money are equally as daunting. This might be the difference between the haves and have nots of tomorrow.

“If we are at this conference next year and all 5G is for consumers is faster internet, we will have missed the boat,” said Nicki Palmer, SVP of Technology and Product Development at Verizon.

This point was echoed by Craig Sparks, Chief Innovation Officer at C Spire and Igor Glubochansky, AVP of Mobility Product Management at AT&T. It’s a simple idea, but one we suspect many will ignore; the traditional and relentless focus on speeds, the bigger, faster meaner mentality, will march telcos down the dreary road of utilitisation.

Here we have three telcos who have seemingly cottoned onto the idea. 5G is about more than speed, but we suspect there will be numerous others who do not attempt to disrupt themselves and create new value for the ecosystem.

In her keynote presentation, Palmer presented a mentality which should be the foundation of any telco making the move into the 5G world. 5G should be built on fulfilling the gaps where 4G falls short. This might be on speed in some cases, though data throughput should not be ignored, and neither should the promise of low latency or increased reliability.

“In 2010, no one predicted how the capabilities [of 4G networks] would enable whole new business models, the same thing is going to happen again [with 5G networks],” said Palmer.

Although premium add-ons for data tariffs are one way to make money, enterprise services and products open the door to entirely new revenues, and potentially a new path forward, avoiding the dreaded tag of commoditisation. Whether its healthcare, retail, manufacturing or broadcasting, industry specific applications could mean significant ROI for the telcos. However, it is critical the ‘bigger, meaner, faster’ business model which is so heavily reliant on faster internet is forgotten.

In five years’ time, the connectivity ecosystem is likely to be very different. We can imagine a split in the industry however. On one side, you have the telcos who double down on speed angle, using 5G to entice consumers onto steroid-induced tariffs. This might look attractive in the short-term, but these telcos will be led towards utilitisation.

The telcos who are taking the trickier path, exploring the unknown realms of 5G, will add value and become much more attractive companies. Hopefully there won’t be too many who fall into the short-termist trap but we suspect there will be quite a few.

We’re in last place but we’re actually leading 5G race – T-Mobile US

T-Mobile US is currently in last place for the 5G race, but if you listen to the magenta tinged spin, its actually in first place.

Right now, AT&T and Verizon have hit the on-switch for their 5G networks. Sprint is moving forward with its own plans, leaving only T-Mobile US floundering on 4G. That said, the purplish-red twist on the state-of-affairs is one of irrelevance.

“With early 5G launches there have been disappointed customers and we don’t want to launch anything until we can delight out customers,” said Ulf Ewaldsson, SVP of Technology Transformation at T-Mobile US, speaking at Light Reading’s Big 5G Event in Denver.

According to Ewaldsson, T-Mobile US could switch on its networks now, if it wanted, and it could even offer services on the mmWave spectrum. The team is ready to go, it just doesn’t want to at the moment.

The depth of truth on this statement depends on where you sit. Some might believe T-Mobile US claims. It only wants to launch 5G when it is a service which delivers on the lofty promise, and at a time where the telco can deliver a nationwide proposition. It doesn’t want to dupe the customer into an expensive contract and limited coverage.

This is a perfectly reasonable approach, and the option to bide one’s time might be completely justified if a nationwide 5G network is launched, crushing the feeble attempts from competitors. It is a sensible business strategy. However, it might also be the case that rivals were more successful in the early days and stole a march on T-Mobile US. This is just clever spin and nuance.

Both explanations are probably true to a degree, and it may not even matter that much. The winner when it comes to 5G in North America is not going to be the first to market, but the delivery of the best performing network.

And of course, in the pursuit of delivering the best performing 5G network Ewaldsson managed to plug the promise of the Sprint transaction.

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The image above is an interesting one. This is what T-Mobile US claims its 5G coverage would look like by 2024, if the team is allowed to combine the spectrum assets from the two businesses.

With a blend of low, mid and high spectrum assets, Ewaldsson is claiming T-Mobile US is in the strongest position to deliver on the 5G promise. By the end of next year, the executive has promised it will launch a nationwide 5G network, making use of the 600 mhz assets which it currently has. A network which is worth waiting for, as Ewaldsson puts in.

However, what is also worth pointing out is the contradiction from the very same conference stream.

On a panel session following Ewaldsson’s remarks about the importance of delivering a nationwide 5G network instead of the current pockets of connectivity, John Baker of Mavenir said there was no need for such widespread coverage, while Mishka Dehghan, VP of 5G Deployment at Sprint, also contradicted Ewaldsson.

Baker suggested 4G and 5G can co-exist for the foreseeable future, suggesting you only build 5G where you actually need it, like AT&T and Verizon have done today. Dehghan’s contradiction was perhaps more worrying considering the two telcos are supposed to be singing from the same hymn sheet. Like Baker, Dehghan suggested 5G should be deployed as necessary, focusing on specific usecases.

Ultimately there isn’t necessarily a right answer. Ewaldsson pointed out at the beginning of his session that there will be multiple deployment strategies, each of which would be tailored to the organization. Being last to launch 5G in the US certainly won’t hurt T-Mobile US in the long-run, but the anticipation will place more pressure on the team.

The private power of the edge

One of conundrums which has been quietly emerging over the last couple of months concerns how to maintain privacy when attempting to improve customer experience, but the power of the edge might save the day.

If telcos want to be able to improve customer experience, data needs to be collected and analysed. This might sound like a very obvious statement to make, but the growing privacy movement across the world, and the potential of new regulatory restraints, might make this more difficult.

This is where the edge could play a more significant role. One of the more prominent discussions from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year was the role of the edge, and it does appear this conversation has continued through to Light Reading’s Big 5G Event in Denver.

Some might say artificial intelligence and data analytics are solutions looking for a problem, but in this instance, there is a very real issue to address. Improving customer experience though analytics will only be successful if implemented quickly, some might suggest in real-time, therefore the models used to improve performance should be hosted on the edge. This is an example of where the latency business model can directly impact operations.

It also addresses another few issues, firstly, the cost of sending data back to a central data centre. As it was pointed out today, telcos cannot afford to send all customer data back to be analysed today, it is simply an unreasonable quantity, therefore the more insight which can be actioned on the edge, with only the genuinely important insight being sent back to train models, the more palatable customer experience management becomes.

Secondly, the privacy issue is partly addressed. The more which is actioned on the edge, as close to the customer as possible, the lesser the concerns of the privacy advocates. Yes, data is still being collected, analysed and (potentially) actioned upon, but as soon as the insight is realised the sooner it can be deleted.

There are still sceptics when it comes to the edge, the latency business case, artificial intelligence and data analytics, but slowly more cases are starting to emerge to add credibility.