The digital divide is nothing new. Those in rural and remote areas have always been less likely to access high speed broadband and 4G, or possess the basic digital skills to harness the full power of internet connectivity.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has brought the divide into laser-sharp focus, as reliable connectivity is a crucial component for maintaining productivity for remote workers. Newspapers were flooded with stories of people who lived away from towns and cities struggling to secure the fast connections and bandwidth to maintain business as usual.
Despite the number of adults in the UK unable to access the internet falling steadily in the years building up to the pandemic, it’s estimated that 6% of households still do not have access to the internet at home. While multiple lockdowns enabled a number of people to gain new digital skills and enjoy the benefits of being online, for others the divide became more entrenched, with an increasing number of services and everyday activities (such as schooling) becoming inaccessible as they were moved online .
The UK’s fixation on fiber over the past decade has helped only those who are already connected to reach faster speeds than legacy copper infrastructure. Consumers and businesses in London, Manchester and Glasgow will all agree that there have been notable increases in their broadband speeds in recent years.
For those who are in hard to reach remote areas, however, fiber remains costly and extremely time consuming and disruptive to deploy, and is ultimately not feasible for last mile connectivity. It’s for this reason that the UK has struggled to fulfill its pledge to offer gigabit broadband across the country by 2025. Even the watered down target – 85% of premises – has been labeled unachievable by the Public Accounts Committee, thanks to a ‘litany of planning and implementation failures’. Simply put, fiber has its limitations, and will not rise to meet the basic requirements of those who live outside urban centers. A new approach is needed.
Enter 5G fixed wireless access
A better alternative is available; one that can cater to the masses. One of the most scalable and efficient ways to deliver not only 5G mobile access, but also gigabit broadband to homes and businesses, is to deploy 5G Fixed Wireless Access (5GFWA). The UK government has recognized the potential of this technology, particularly in combination with unlicensed frequency bands, and intends to capitalize on it to bridge the digital divide. As such, Ofcom recently proposed making a large amount of millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum available across the 26 GHz and 40 GHz bands for use of mobile technology, including 5G. This has the potential to deliver significant benefits by enabling large increases in wireless data capacity and speeds.
At present, most 5GFWA networks are dependent on mid-band spectrum. mmWave, however, is capable of delivering connectivity on par with fiber or DOCSIS technologies. 5G mmWave operates in the 30GHz to 300GHz frequency range, and this spectrum is uniquely capable of delivering the multi-gigabit data rates 5G promises.
The ever-increasing demand for high-speed internet is opening up opportunities for FWA to take center stage by delivering fiber-like internet connectivity to rural and urban areas alike. Unlike fiber, FWA provides an economic alternative to address network densification. In addition, FWA provides an easier and cheaper solution to fast, reliable connectivity where wireline infrastructure is not present, or only copper infrastructure is available.
A number of operators around the world are capitalizing on this opportunity, with data from the GSMA showing that nearly 500 operators offered FWA in 2021. The enhanced connectivity and low latency offered by 5G improves FWA’s economics and gives operators the tools to not only address current demands, but meet future expectations too. Further, new research by ABI Research found that FWA will reach 180 million subscribersand 5GFWA will account for 40% of the total FWA market, by 2026. Operators need to combine 5G with FWA to democratize broadband connectivity as 5G deployments continue to accelerate.
Why we must act with urgency
Put simply, our ever-increasing online lives demand ubiquitous and reliable connectivity. High-quality internet is a must for the continuity of business; Cutting edge companies that are harnessing the likes of IoT and AI to automate processes and increase efficiency rely on constant connection to continue operating. The development of 5G technology is helping businesses meet changing consumer expectations and deliver high-speed, low latency internet connections to everyone, everywhere. With this new era of connectivity – including the metaverse and hybrid working – FWA is the most viable option for delivering high-speed connectivity to everyone, everywhere.
Beyond next-generation technology, however, 5GFWA provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to connect the entire country, closing the disparity between the rural and urban, rich and poor, able-bodied and disabled. With online goods and services becoming integral to everyday life, the entire industry – from operators to vendors, regulators to lobby groups – has a duty to ensure everyone is connected.