Feeling confused by all the tech terminology? You’re not alone. So, what is the difference between fixed wireless and mobile broadband?

Keeping up with technological advances these days can be more of a challenge than keeping up with the Kardashians. As the internet evolves, so do the networks that deliver it into your hands. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a recent influx of jargon about fixed versus mobile or cellular versus wireless, you’re in good company. Let’s tackle this tangled web of technological terms together to gain a better understanding of recent network advances and what the future of the internet might look like.

What does 5G mean?

5G is short for fifth generation and, while the term is most often associated with 4G networks like those utilized by cell phone providers, it actually encompasses a much broader meaning. 5G networks are those that use the next iteration of technology to deliver internet, whether it be via mobile or fixed broadband. Currently, many mobile wireless providers use 4G technology, which has improved upload and download rates over previous 2G and 3G technologies. The industry anticipates that 5G networks will utilize higher frequencies to deliver faster internet speeds, possibly via fixed wireless. The important thing to remember here is that 5G simply refers to the next step in the technology that delivers internet, not to anything specific about the type of network, devices, or the method that will make it possible.

 

What is fixed wireless?

Fixed wireless is fairly new, and despite the way it sounds, it doesn’t utilize a cellular network like your mobile phone does. This approach involves connecting existing fiber, cable, or DSL internet between two fixed locations via a radio and a receiver. Fixed wireless relies on small stations to transfer data at high speeds, similar to a satellite but localized. Because the stations are clustered close together, the technology is capable of delivering faster internet speeds than 4G with lower latency. Many providers see fixed wireless as a way to expand the edges of their current service footprints with a reliable, cost-effective approach. Up until recently, fixed wireless has been costly to deploy because subscriber numbers were low and it was best suited for densely populated areas where stations could be within line of sight. Now, the ability to utilize higher frequencies and advances in receiver technology have the capacity to transform fixed wireless into the broadband solution we’ve been searching for.

 

What is mobile broadband?

Got it so far? Good. Let’s move onto mobile. So this is confusing, but mobile broadband isn’t really a thing. It’s a buzzword that refers to internet delivered on a cellular network. This type of connection utilizes cell towers to transfer data to your mobile phone, keeping the internet portable for millions of users. But unlike fixed wireless, these networks are optimized for a high volume demanding fairly low bandwidth, focusing on activities like streaming the internet or transferring voice data. Mobile internet is designed to be flexible, so networks sacrifice speed and latency in patchy coverage areas. Instead of thinking of your cell phone as a mobile broadband device, think of it as portable internet. It’s designed to be sleek, efficient, and minimalist so it can fit in your pocket as a pared-down version of your home broadband connection.

 

What’s the difference between fixed wireless and mobile broadband?

While both of these methods deliver internet through the “last mile” and into your hands—either at home or on the go—these connections utilize different types of technology. Fixed wireless delivers broadband from the backbone of the internet by using base stations to transfer the signal from building to building, like a local satellite. These dedicated wireless connections are usually much faster than cellular 4G networks and have low latency, but are limited to densely populated areas because they require line-of-sight connectivity. We’ve created a table below where you can compare the differences between fixed wireless and mobile broadband.

 

Fixed Wireless Mobile Broadband
Specific location/range Portable
Dedicated connection Shared capacity
Low latency Higher latency
Line of sight base stations Cell phone towers

Your takeaway? Wireless doesn’t always equal mobile or cellular.

 

Who are the major providers of fixed wireless?

There are 1,341 providers of fixed wireless in the United States, many of them smaller providers serving local areas. But as fixed wireless technology advances and becomes more ubiquitous, we’ll see some consolidation and hopefully, wider areas of availability. Here are the top five national providers of fixed wireless:

  1. Windstream
  2. Rise (Colorado)
  3. Skyriver
  4. GHz Wireless
  5. King Street Wireless (Virginia)

 

Want to see if fixed wireless is available in your area? Use our zip code tool to find out.