5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and the uCPE — A Natural Pairing?

By Roy Chua, founder and principal at AvidThink

Office workers looking at a screen discussingIn the first article of this series, we examined the maturation of SD-WAN and the evolution of uCPE as a platform to host SD-WAN services. We followed up with our second article examining uCPE as laying edge foundations for promising early verticals, including industrial manufacturing, retail, and healthcare. In this third article, we'll look at the increasing uptake of 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) and the role the uCPE can play as we enter hybrid work arrangements. While using FWA as a network transport medium for SD-WAN is not new, the arrival of 5G is potentially changing the economics of the equation.

5G FWA — the Almost Killer App?

With the advent of 5G and significant capital expenditures by mobile network operators (MNOs) worldwide on building out 5G networks, there's been a desire to find the 5G killer app to drive up average revenue per user/account (ARPU/ARPA). For many, 5G is just a better 4G network, with increased capacity, density, speed, and spectrum efficiency. Yet, 5G comes with a host of new capabilities targeted at enterprises, including network slicing, precision location, and more. Notably, 5G networks are built on cloud architectures and will provide increased flexibility, automation, and programmability to drive innovation and help with operational costs.

We are still in the early days, and innovation will come, as it did for virtualization in the enterprise and the app economy on mobile 4G. In the meantime, MNOs, in addition to consumer 5G mobile plans, are pushing FWA offerings more aggressively than they did in the 4G LTE days.

Concurrent with the rise of SD-WAN for remote connectivity and accelerated by the pandemic, an easy-to-deploy, almost ubiquitous, and mostly reliable wireless WAN link is increasingly desired by enterprises (and consumers). In addition, MNOs are competing with aggressive pricing options. Expensive enterprise pooled data plans that used to cost multiple dollars per GB/month (even through wholesale) are dropping rapidly. We are now looking at per-line costs closer to $1.50 per GB/month or even $1.00 per GB/month through bundled unlimited deals (throttled after 50GB or 100GB).

Unsurprisingly, enterprises are attracted by the prospect of cost-effective 5G FWA offerings, at minimum as secondary and sometimes as primary links.

5G FWA Benefits for SD-WAN

SD-WAN vendor announcements are touting their support for 5G and 4G backup links, and carriers are starting to offer SD-WAN packages with bundled 5G and 4G backup, sometimes unmetered (since they control failover rules and are responsible for the primary link SLA). But a mobile link built into SD-WAN brings much more than just the ability to tap into lower-cost packages and increased coverage.

SD-WANs with built-in mobile WAN can be pre-provisioned and are almost guaranteed to come up connected on initial deployment. Troubleshooting wireline links can be done remotely with the assistance of a reliable mobile WAN link. And when the pricing and coverage support it, SD-WANs can deploy with just mobile links. This is a significant benefit for pop-up retail, seasonal locations, or hard-to-reach places. Depending on a mobile WAN while waiting weeks or months for the wireline turn-up allows fast time-to-market for enterprises.

5G FWA and the uCPE — Go Well Together

As we've covered in our earlier articles, the uCPE is a platform beneficial to both carrier and enterprise. It represents an evolvable and extensible platform on which SD-WAN and other functions can be hosted. The uCPE, coupled with SD-WAN (and 5G FWA), addresses immediate enterprise issues with the modernization of their WAN as they grow into hybrid organizations (i.e., work-from-anywhere including branches and homes). The uCPE, if sized appropriately, provides enough headroom to add enterprise services as the company evolves.

The same benefits that accrue to SD-WAN platforms with 5G FWA apply to uCPEs. Furthermore, uCPEs can add more sophisticated and flexible options for wireless WAN modules, supporting broader needs, such as dual wireless modems, dual SIMs with failover, eSIM support, and replaceable modules with different supporting bands for different global carriers. While dedicated SD-WAN appliances can do the same, it's likely that specialized purveyors of uCPE solutions have more investment and competence in supporting richer platform options. Today, we're already seeing multiple uCPE solutions available with 5G modem options, either built directly into the platform or available as plug-in modules. We expect this trend to continue into 2022 and beyond.

5G FWA — The Foot in the Door

As carriers look to offer 5G FWA bundles with SD-WAN to enterprises modernizing their WANs and making them more robust, they should consider this another foot-in-the-door opportunity to deploy uCPEs. As we've discussed before, the uCPE is a future-ready small-form-factor enterprise edge platform, hosting new services like unified communications, IoT gateways, and WiFi for small offices. More importantly, uCPEs can act as excellent security platforms, hosting local services like network access control, network detection and response (NDR), NGFW, and of course, SD-WAN and SASE. They can likely host services for private 5G and 4G LTE networks.

Carriers looking to establish themselves as next-generation WAN solution providers should leverage capabilities in FWA coupled with SD-WAN to expand their footprint in the enterprise. And by building on a foundation of uCPE, they can improve their flexibility in supporting multiple connectivity options while giving their enterprise customer choices in SD-WAN, networking, and security solutions. Finally, as they look to expand into edge computing, the uCPE footprint works as a small-form-factor edge, providing carriers with a toehold and edge expansion path.