The role of fixed wireless connectivity in 2021

Trenches Law News   •   January 12th 2021

Amidst all the talk of the UK becoming a fully gigabit-ready nation by 2025, the conversation is often dominated by full fibre roll-outs – particularly in the country’s hard to reach areas. But as work continues at pace to meet the Government’s tricky targets, is the role of fixed wireless connectivity being overlooked?

In Trenches Law’s latest guest blog, we spoke to David Burns, chairman of the UK Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), to learn his thoughts…

I’m sure we’ll all agree that 2020 was a challenging year for the country, for many reasons, but as we navigated ongoing Covid-19-related restrictions, the roll-out of gigabit-capable connectivity continued to happen in parallel.

As businesses and households battled to keep in touch with colleagues, customers, family and friends – particularly during the height of the social distancing obligations – this investment in connectivity became undeniably crucial. In fact, the Government has recognised that a faster and more robust infrastructure will actually prove key to bringing the economy back to life over the coming years.

This helps to explain why, despite the immeasurable financial pressures we now face as a country, moving forward, the Treasury has ringfenced the F20 (final 20%) budget.

The Chancellor’s recent spending review did admittedly cause some uncertainty, with the figure of £1.2bn – rather than £5bn – being cited for the 2021-25 period. However, we’re reassured that the money still exists – the adjustment simply reflects the struggles the industry may encounter, to hit the target on time. We therefore understand that, at present, the National Infrastructure Strategy is focusing on 85% gigabit coverage by 2025, with an aspiration to go further.

The race is therefore on, and it won’t be easy.

So, what role will wireless play during this exciting time?

‘Fibre’ has almost become a brand in the telecoms space, and as a result, many people have fallen into the trap of talking only about fibre rather than the multi-gigabit capabilities it enables.

Consequently, some of the exciting wireless technology that is now coming to the fore and could take the UK’s connectivity to a whole new level, is being overlooked.

For example, pioneered by social media giant Facebook, Terragraph technology delivers fibre-like speeds through a 60 GHz multi-hop, multi-point wireless network. Mounted on existing street furniture or buildings, it is faster to deploy than any wirelines service and doesn’t require right of way permissions.

In fact, due to the comparatively minimal time and cost required to commission such gigabit-level connectivity, it has been hailed as the solution to the urban bandwidth challenge – especially because broadband speeds of over 10 gigabits using licence-exempt Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), are imminent.

This affordable technology is becoming increasingly available too, with three vendors already on board, and 16 partners expected to be fuelling this ecosystem by mid-2021.

Why is this so exciting right now?

Because all of a sudden, wireless has caught up. And the regulators have moved quickly to enable this type of technology to work, with Code Powers also being granted.

This is not to say that we don’t recognise the value of fibre-optic cables, in our national infrastructure. But if all UK traffic is to rely on such connectivity, this does pose challenges – not least from a capacity, lifespan and civil engineering point of view. A hybrid solution could therefore prove to be the answer.

Blending the best of fibre and wireless technology together – using wireless equipment at the edge of fibre paths – both improves the investment model for fibre and increases the speed gigabit roll-out. A hybrid win-win.