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The future of wireless is open. We have OpenRAN, OpenRoaming, and more recently, OpenWiFi, and I am sure there are other initiatives to open wireless networks that I am forgetting. Should we consider opening fixed wireless access (FWA) too?
So far the focus of openness initiatives has been on cellular and Wi-Fi with some common trends:
What are the benefits of openness in cellular and Wi-Fi networks?
Wireless networks are still homogeneous, vertically integrated and highly reliable. But they are not sufficiently flexible, dynamic and diverse to quickly benefit from technological change, adapt to increases in traffic demand and quickly create new services. Openness promises to make wireless networks more efficient, less complex and less expensive to deploy and operate. It also promises to introduce new ecosystem dynamics, making it easier for new innovative vendors to emerge and capture market share. This could put pressure on incumbent vendors to innovate.
The transition to open networks will require time and effort, and we are still learning what is the best path to openness and how large a benefit it will deliver. But the direction is clear: operators want openness, and vendors are increasingly on board to work with them toward that goal.
In the middle of this openness love fest is there room for an open approach that could deliver comparable benefits to fixed wireless access?
There are some arguments against open FWA.
FWA doesn’t need to support mobility or new subscribers showing up in the network, as cellular and Wi-Fi networks do. CPEs don’t show up in the network in some random location unannounced like someone connecting to Wi-Fi in a coffee shop, or to a cellular network when getting off the plane in a foreign country. So it can be argued that FWA operators do not need the same degree of flexibility, real-time optimization, or fine-grained traffic management. In FWA networks it is advantageous to have the same vendor for the infrastructure and devices (e.g., CPEs) since the operators control both ends. It is more effective to optimize performance if the same vendor provides both CPEs and base stations or access points. So one of the main drivers to openness – the multi-vendor approach – does not resonate well in the FWA community. Many of the advantages of openness (e.g., promoting virtualization) may be achieved without opening FWA networks.
But there are some good arguments in favor of open FWA.
While the arguments against disaggregating access in FWA are valid, there is still a role for openness in FWA, although one that is somewhat different than that for cellular and Wi-Fi, but that serves a similar purpose: make FWA networks more efficient, more cost effective and easier to upgrade and expand.
FWA operators typically already have networks with multiple vendors using different bands in different locations or to serve different types of customers. Their business case to achieve and maintain profitability is a tough one, and yet they have to invest funding and resources to manage a complex system of multiple networks and multiple vendors, each using a separate network management, typically provided by the vendor.
This is where it may make sense to make FWA networks more open. The RF links can (and probably should) remain single vendor, but the management of the overall FWA network – different frequencies, topologies and service types – could be managed in a vendor-neutral framework that is open to participating vendors and network operators.
An operator may have a fiber network that connects to multiple wireless networks, which may range from midband (e.g., CBRS), to unlicensed sub-6 GHZ (e.g., 6 GHz) and 60 GHz (e.g., Terragraph), with some e band and microwave point-to-point links. A good example of this is AeroNet in Puerto Rico, which uses fiber and most wireless bands – licensed and unlicensed – to serve a diverse set of customers in different types of locations. Far from being the exception, most FWA operators use a mix of wireless bands for access, PTP links and backhaul.
Being able to manage these different networks using a common platform could reduce the cost of operating the network, make it easier to support subscribers and make the allocation and use of network and spectrum resources more efficient.
Vendors may see open FWA as a competitive threat, as they may believe this makes it easier for operators to move to a different vendor (although, if true, this would also make it easier to gain new customers). But there are advantages for vendors as well in a more open FWA infrastructure. Improving network management translates into lower opex for FWA operators. A stronger business case for FWA can expand the FWA market size – more operators, larger operators, more subscribers. Also, similarly to what is happening with OpenWiFi, vendors may see this as an opportunity to focus on their core strengths – the infrastructure equipment and its optimization – and not have to worry about the overall FWA network management (even if they are the sole vendor for the network).
Opening FWA is unlike opening the RAN. Open RAN focuses on access disaggregation, which not a major issue for FWA. Open FWA is closer to the recently launched OpenWiFi, which addresses the complexity of managing multi-vendor Wi-Fi networks. The difference is that in a Wi-Fi network all vendors use the same unlicensed bands, while FWA networks use a wider range of bands.
In all cases, however, openness frees vendors and operators from technology, business models and cultural constraints that slow down technological innovation and market growth. And just like cellular and Wi-Fi, FWA can benefit from openness.