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About fixed-wireless internet

Fixed-wireless internet service is delivered using transmitters to send and receive wireless internet signals directly from one point to another. These transmitters are affixed to stationary (fixed) objects—like poles, buildings, or towers—at strategic locations, combining to create a wireless network. Fixed-wireless internet service providers (ISPs) often fill the gaps between internet providers’ service areas and extend high-speed connections into more rural areas.

Popular fixed-wireless internet providers

ProviderFixed-wireless speeds up toPrices starting atGet it
AT&T Fixed Wireless25 Mbps$59.99/mo.*View Plans
Starry Internet200 Mbps$50.00/mo.View Plans
Rise Broadband25 Mbps$50.00/mo.View Plans
Aerux Broadband20 Mbps$49.00/mo.View Plans
T-Mobile Home Internet47 Mbps$50.00/mo.†View Plans
Verizon LTE Home Internet25 Mbps$40.00/mo.‡View Plans

Fixed-wireless internet is very location dependent, so even plans offered by nationwide providers are typically available only in small pockets across the country. This also means that there are many smaller local providers that offer fixed-wireless connections to their surrounding community.

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Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Quality signal
  • Simple infrastructure
  • Local ownership

Cons

  • Signal obstruction
  • Limited availability

Pros of fixed-wireless

Quality signal—Fixed wireless delivers a higher-quality signal than other types of wireless internet because its transmissions are focused directly toward the receiver on your home and not scattered in multiple directions. It also uses a much higher frequency than many other wireless technologies, which allows more information to be transmitted, resulting in higher bandwidth.1

Simple infrastructure—Because sending signals wirelessly is more cost-effective than building the infrastructure to send a signal via a wired connection, ISPs can expand their service areas quickly without a lot of up-front costs. This business advantage is particularly helpful for smaller ISPs or ISPs just entering the market. Fixed wireless generally works well in mountainous areas where transmitters can be placed at high elevations to reach a wider range.

Local ownership—Many fixed-wireless providers were started by local entrepreneurs.1 Although some large, nationwide corporations offer fixed-wireless services, they generally make little use of this technology. Most fixed-wireless providers are small, local businesses with ties to the surrounding community.2

Cons of fixed-wireless

Signal obstruction—Fixed-wireless internet transmitters require a clear line of sight from one transmitter to another in order to function. Ensuring that lines of sight remain clear can be problematic because an ISP can’t always control what happens between one transmitter and another. A tree could grow taller, another company could construct a tall building, a pole could get knocked over by adverse weather—all of which could potentially disrupt a fixed-wireless transmission.

While low frequency transmissions like radio and television can easily pass through small obstructions and even walls, the short wavelength used by fixed wireless can be more easily deflected by foliage and similarly sized objects.

Limited availability—Although fixed-wireless networks offer some of the fastest, most reliable connections available in rural areas, there just aren’t many fixed-wireless networks in operation. Only around a third of the rural population has access to fixed-wireless internet.3

How fixed-wireless internet works

Fixed-wireless networks—also known as fixed-wireless access (FWA), broadband wireless access (BWA), wireless internet service providers (WISPs), and several other terms—work by sending a wireless signal directly from a remote transmitter to a receiver on your home. While cell towers transmit in all directions within a given radius to serve mobile customers, fixed-wireless transmitters send signals directly to other fixed-wireless transmitters.

Fixed-wireless signals

Fixed-wireless providers use a variety of technologies in their networks, ranging from microwave-band connections like WiMAX to millimeter-band connections similar to those used in 5G technologies. The main distinction between fixed-wireless connections and cellular technologies is that fixed-wireless connections cannot be moved and require line of sight (or near line of sight) to the transmitter.

Another difference between fixed-wireless and cellular connections is the equipment involved. Cellular equipment usually consists of a single device within the home, which may have a separate antenna that is placed in a window. Fixed-wireless connections usually have an external antenna or dish mounted on the outside of the house to maximize signal strength. This is then connected to the customer premises equipment (CPE) where you plug in your router (or the CPE might have a router built in). In multifamily buildings like apartments, the entire building might be connected to the network with a single antenna and CPE, which is then connected to routers in each individual household.

With the development of 4G LTE home internet and 5G home internet, which both sacrifice mobility to provide a stronger signal, the distinction between fixed-wireless and cellular providers is becoming even more blurred.

Fixed-wireless infrastructure

Fixed-wireless providers work similarly to most landline networks, but they use wireless transmitters instead of running cables underground. Not only does this configuration save on the up-front costs of building a network, but it also allows for a strong and fast internet connection within that network.

These wireless transmitters connect in two different ways, point-to-point (PtP) and point-to-multiple-point (PtMP). The antennas that connect to all the residential customers in a given area use PtMP, with one tower providing a signal to multiple homes. These antennas then use direct PtP connections to send the signal toward the backbone of the provider’s network (a high-bandwidth fiber connection), which then connects to the rest of the internet.

Fixed-wireless antennas can also be much smaller (and cheaper to build) than cell towers. However, to get the most out of their range, they need to be mounted someplace high. Tall buildings and mountains make excellent spots to mount antennas. But, in flatter areas, providers might have to build towers just to keep the signals from being blocked by the curvature of the earth.

Fixed wireless vs. satellite internet vs. mobile broadband vs. 5G

There are a lot of kinds of wireless internet, and fixed wireless is just one specific kind. Fixed-wireless internet is different from satellite internet, Wi-Fi, 4G, and 5G.

Satellite internet works using transmitters orbiting Earth. This technology allows for high availability but also results in high latency.

Wi-Fi generally refers to small Local Area Networks (LANs). For example, your home Wi-Fi network or the Wi-Fi at your favorite coffee shop both manage the internet connections for all the devices on their respective networks, but they rely on an ISP internet connection to relay all those connections.

Fixed wireless is also different from cellular technologies like 4G and 5G. These technologies are used both in mobile phones that have internet connectivity, as well as many home internet connections, such as 4G LTE home internet. Although the technologies are similar, cellular towers require more infrastructure and offer lower speeds.

The expansion of fixed wireless

Fixed-wireless technology has been around for a long time, but it’s seen more growth as more frequencies of the spectrum are opened up for commercial use. For example, another chunk of the spectrum was opened in 2015, allowing fixed-wireless providers to use frequencies that were previously reserved for government uses like radar.1

Also, since fixed-wireless networks can make use of unlicensed spectrum bands (where equipment has to be able to function while causing minimal interference to other users), new fixed-wireless networks can be deployed rapidly while dealing with fewer regulations.2

Although fixed wireless isn’t as fast as fiber or as exciting as cutting-edge satellite technology, it might be one of the fastest and easiest ways to address the digital divide. It might even get better as wireless technologies like 5G inspire new solutions to the challenges that come with wireless internet.

Related resources about fixed-wireless internet

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Sources

  1. Interisle Consulting Group, “The Essential Role of Fixed Wireless in Universal Broadband Coverage,” August 2015, Accessed June 30, 2021.
  2. The Carmel Group, “Broadband Wireless Access Industry Report 2017,” Accessed June 30, 2021.
  3. Federal Communications Commission, “Fixed Broadband Deployment,” Accessed June 29, 2021.