Orange 5G FWA trial hits tech targets – now for the business case

Results of a 5G FWA customer trial in Romania - the first of its kind in Europe - show that the technology works and the customer experience is good, but business case questions remain.

Orange has been trialling 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), using the 5GTF specifications, with live customers in Romania. It is the first such trial in Europe, although other trials of the same radio access technology are much more advanced in the USA with Verizon, Sprint and AT&T.

Orange sees FWA as a likely use case for 5G in markets where fibre and fixed broadband availability is constrained. It said that in Romania it could see potential for up to 10% of the overall broadband customer base to have a FWA connection

TRIAL SET UP

In Floresti, Orange has two Samsung Fixed Wireless Access points operating over 500MHz of experimental 26GHz spectrum. The access points have 128 element MIMO antennas. Orange has one access point on a tower on top of a hill and one on a lower, 20m, tower. The trial runs from the start of June to mid July.

About 30km away in an Orange data centre the operator has sited vBBU capacity from Samsung on COTS server hardware, and a dedicated Virtual Core from Cisco. Arnaud Vamparys,  Orange Senior VP Radio Networks, said the operator would not necessarily deploy vRAN to support FWA deployments, but that it was important to do so in this instance to explore the potential flexibility and efficiency benefits that such an architecture could support. “We are not saying that FWA will be on virtual radio, but we are doing it in the beginning because it is important to understand the choice.” The operator had deployed a high layer split between the access point and vBBU, he added.

Trial set up, CPE over 26GHz to the tower 128 MIMO antennas, back over fibre to teh

It has 15 friendly customers who have signed up to test the connectivity. Some of these have an external unit that receives the signal and then relays that to an indoor router from Cisco. Others have an indoor Samsung unit that directly receives the FWA signal and then daisy chains to the Cisco router. The outdoor units need professional positioning and fitting. The indoor units are more plug-and-play.

Floresti was chosen because it has a mix of residential building types – detached, apartment blocks and so on. There is at least one enterprise customers –  the Carrefour supermarket – and a local authority building also has a connection. The location also has a number of early adopter and technically advanced users – making them good triallists.

The Samsung 5G FWA access point, back centre, with outdoor and indoor CPE back left and right. Cisco Meraki router is front centre.

TRIAL AIMS

The aims of the trial were several. First, to establish wireless performance from the access points (base station antennas) to the home units. Second, to find out more (“fine tuning” in Orange’s words) about radio planning and about the transmission requirements on the fibre connection from the vRAN to the tower. Third, Orange wanted to take some customer reaction to the quality of the service, and ease of deployment. This is important as it needs to assess the actual customer benefits of 5G to help it build a business case. Finally, it wanted to test out systems such as radio planning tools – to verify performance after installation it has re-used a Samsung RF planning tool that the vendor developed in the US. Vamparys said it also needed to assess some geomarketing tools to understand where best to put potential FWA sites.

The Samsung RF planning tool, used in this case to verify links post-intallation.

RESULTS

Stefan Slavnicu, CTO Orange Romania, said that the operator was able to achieve coverage of over 1km from its access point, further than it had thought from theoretical simulation. It was also able to deliver NLOS (non line of site) service, taking advantage of reflective paths.

As an example, four simultaneous users had received an average 3Gbps between them. Users had streamed 4K internet video, had played multiplayer online games, and Carrefour had used the connection as its total internet connection for all its services.

Some initial headline results

At a demo tent 1.2km away from the lower tower, Orange was making throughput measurements of 1Gbps. This, Slavnicu said, is a fibre like experience over wireless. The operator had been able to use existing 2/3/4G sites to site equipment, and CPE installation had been straightforward.

Inside a tent with supporting steel structure, 1.2km from the FWA access point, with no line of sight to the tower.

ECONOMICS

Slavnicu added that FWA rollouts would require “heavy” investment in fiber, to get 10Gbps links to the sites hosting the access units. Although the majority of its urban cell sites in Romania are fibre-connected, very few of its rural sites are.

That heavy investment is the nub of the question. One of the questions facing 5G FWA is to assess  it becomes economically the best option. Put simply, it is a last km ultra-broadband solution for when fibre is not available or where fibre would be expensive to deploy, and where fixed access over LTE+ is not deemed sufficient from a customer experience point of view.

“The technology will require significant investments in the technology layer and the spectrum… it is still soon to talk about business case. That is why we are testing today what is feasible.”

Vamparys said that from a lower tower the system could support 10-30 households, and perhaps up to 100 from its higher tower. So in raw terms, an operator would need to see enough revenue from, say, a few tens of households to cover the costs of installing and operating the access units on the tower and the high capacity fibre to the tower. The costs of the  BBU and core itself can be averaged over the number of sites deployed.

“To learn this that’s why we need to do the customer field trial, to understand how to complement it [fibre] where it is where not deployed. It is important to have the right feedback in terms of customer satisfaction, technology performance and to understand the ROI in Europe for operators with these kinds of technologies.”

L to R: Vamparys, Slavnicu, Climoc

Liudmila Climoc, CEO Orange Romania, said the business case challenge is first of all how to make sure consumer will benefit, all and then to understand how that can be reflected into the business case. “The technology will require significant investments in the technology layer and the spectrum,” she said, “But it is still soon to talk about business case. That is why we are testing today what is feasible.”

That said, Yves Martin, CMO Orange Romania, said, “We know how crucial 5G and new technology are for us. Video is taking more and more share in the network, up to 58% of our traffic, and data traffic has multiplied ten times in three years. With 5G we see AR, immersive video and VR opportunities.”

What is attractive for the operator is the potential of getting a fibre-like installation done in a day, whilst re-using capacity from a pooled vRAN or physical BBU, whilst existing cell site assets to site the 5G FWA antennas.

CONCLUSION

This small scale trial is giving the the first indications that although technical feasibility seems robust, there are still questions about market economics – especially as Orange was cagey about providing any cost comparison to a like-for-like fibre installation. And although it had very good customer feedback, there was little indication as to what customers would be willing to pay for a service – even one that is easy to install and provides a fibre-like experience. This is no doubt why Climoc said that the first step is to assess what the likely customer benefits of 5G FWA could be.

But in broad terms it looks like a suburban or semi-urban tactical solution for providing advanced services that require high throughput and lower latencies. Rural deployments might suffer from a lack of fibre to sites that are near enough to enough users. City centres (probably, though not always) have enough fibre and high capacity fixed broadband, and perhaps present more of an RF challenge. But somewhere in the middle? That could be the 5G FWA sweetspot. 

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