Bridging Connectivity Gaps in Africa with FWA Solutions – Ericsson

By Chafic Traboulsi, Vice President and Head of Networks at Ericsson Middle East and Africa

Addressing the Global Digital Divide

Today, the global digital divide persists, with around 1 billion households without fixed broadband, and projections indicating that approximately 30% of households worldwide may still lack broadband connectivity by 2028, according to an Ericsson analysis. At the same time, 3GPP technologies, including LTE and 5G, are poised to offer extensive coverage, reaching over 95% of households globally for LTE and around 85% for 5G by 2028. This widespread household coverage presents a unique avenue for mobile operators to deliver Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) services on top of their existing Mobile Broadband (MBB) offerings.

Unique Challenges in the African Context

Within Africa, we expect these figures to be significantly lower as the region starts from a lower level of broadband penetration compared to other global regions. Therefore, the question is how the unconnected households and businesses can be effectively and quickly covered to close the digital divide?

Finding the right solution for home broadband

The solutions for home broadband can be gathered into three main categories: Fixed-dedicated line solutions like fiber or DSL, satellite-based solutions and finally fixed wireless access (FWA). xDSL and cable require relatively low investments, particularly if pre-existing infrastructure is available. In contrast, the appeal of fiber lies in its capacity to provide high speeds. However, limitations in xDSL and cable, related to speed and distance, can curtail future-proofness. Meanwhile, the extensive upfront investment associated with fiber, including factors like civil engineering and project approvals, contributes to its deployment challenges. In this context, FWA’s ability to offer lower costs (it can be as low as a tenth of the cost of laying fiber (Fierce Wireless, 2018)), increased flexibility, and expedited deployment timelines has garnered attention.

Furthermore, while fixed broadband services can only be used to provide home broadband connectivity, FWA can also be used for multiple use cases including Mobile BroadBand (MBB) and Internet of Things (IoT). This enables using the same radio network infrastructure to address multiple use cases.

FWA Solutions for Bridging Africa’s Connectivity Divide

FWA emerges as a pivotal tool for addressing Africa’s broadband needs. While 4G FWA provides an initial steppingstone, the potential of 5G becomes evident through its ability to deliver fiber-like speeds, complementing the fixed broadband in a country. Remarkably, several African markets, including Angola, South Africa, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, have already started to offer 5G FWA services. This pivot towards FWA can be attributed to its cost-effectiveness, rapid deployment capabilities, and inherent flexibility, making it an enticing choice over traditional fixed services.

A notable example of how FWA can be utilized to enable digital inclusion – beyond home connectivity – is our recent joint initiative with FREE Senegal, in which several schools will be connected with Fixed Wireless Access technology, and will also be provided with laptops, learning content, and teacher training to support the development of the ecosystem. The project will run as a part of Ericsson’s Connect to Learn program, a global education initiative to improve educational opportunities through technology.

The Multifaceted Deployment Strategies of FWA

FWA mainly means that we are using ‘wireless’ access for the last mile of connectivity. While it sounds simple as it is, there are multiple ways of deploying FWA: the “best-effort” approach and the “speed-based” approach.

In a “best-effort” scenario, households have an indoor wireless router with wide-area wireless capabilities (e.g., 3GPP) to/from the home, and Wi-Fi or LAN cabling connects the router to local devices. The router and subscription are nomadic, allowing portability as long as the subscription is active. The subscription often mirrors mobile broadband principles, potentially with increased data allowances. The “best-effort” label comes from the fact that the nomadic nature of the devices makes it difficult to provide very high-grade guaranteed offerings.

Speed-based FWA, is where we believe the communication service providers should focus more. This approach focuses on outfitting homes with wide-area wireless-capable devices (like 3GPP) – either outdoor-mounted on roofs/walls or indoor units with advanced antennas. Managed like fixed broadband, remote setup and fault handling use standard protocols. Custom price plans, emphasizing data rates, mirror fixed broadband offerings. Superior performance in speed-based plans often leads to higher ARPU compared to basic options, aligning with market norms. Service providers can strategically mix varied packages for different user groups. Subscriptions are typically tied to specific locations, linked to fixed-mounted CPEs or logically adjusted upon relocation. This location-aware method sharpens FWA service delivery precision.

FWA’s Role in Closing Africa’s Digital Divide
In summary, FWA, particularly 5G FWA, emerges as a potent instrument to bridge Africa’s digital divide. For governments and regulators interested in bridging the digital divide in their countries it should be a priority that the frequencies needed for 5G FWA are released quickly and in an affordable way.
Capitalizing on the expansive network scale, robust device ecosystem, and innovation of 5G, FWA is optimally poised to connect the homes, enterprises and communities that are without broadband access today. By facilitating fast and dependable broadband access, FWA catalyzes economic growth and empowerment, strategically positioning Africa to harness the opportunities of the digital age.