Fixed Wireless Access Sub Growth Will Rise Sharply in Next Two Years, Then Fizzle, Moffett Says

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(Image credit: Stephouse Networks)

Fixed Wireless Access subscriber additions are expected to rise sharply in the next two years, according to MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett, but then moderate in later years, as its rural base begins to saturate.

In a series of slides posted on its website, MoffettNathanson predicted that T-Mobile and Verizon will add 2 million and 1 million FWA customers, respectively, in 2022 and 2023, up from 546,000 and 173,000 in 2021. But that growth is expected to begin to trail off in 2024, to 1.3 million for T-Mobile and 700,000 for Verizon, falling further by 2025 to 500,000 additions for each company, according to Moffett. By 2026, Moffett predicts T-Mobile will add about 200,000 FWA subscribers and Verizon 400,000 FWA customers, according to the report. 

T-Mobile added 565,000 FWA customers in Q2 2022, soundly beating analysts’ estimates, and is expected to finish the year with more than 2 million fixed wireless customers. The company has said it expects to have between 7 million and 8 million FWA customers by 2025. 

Moffett’s predictions are slightly less aggressive than some analysts who have estimated that fixed wireless could add as many as 10 million additional subscribers by 2027, but they’re not that far off. According to his estimates, T-Mobile and Verizon would add a collective 9.6 million additional FWA customers by the end of 2026. 

Though FWA appears to be a viable alternative to cable broadband, Moffett and other analysts have warned, it has mainly been deployed in rural areas and attracted residential and business customers not targeted by wired service. For example, fixed wireless has been extremely popular with construction trailers and food trucks, business customers that aren’t able to receive wired service.

That appears to be backed up by an earlier MoffettNathanson report, which cited estimates from Boston-based market researcher Comlinkdata that 33% of T-Mobile’s broadband customers are in rural areas, representing just 6% of the company’s total homes passed. In addition, Comlinkdata estimated that 88% of T-Mobile’s FWA customers are coming from the 36% of its network that is underutilized.

Looking Beyond Rural Markets

At the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference earlier this month, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said the company plans to expand the service beyond rural markets.

“[W]e’re going to open up new opportunities outside the suburban, out of rural as well, where it's even greater opportunities for us,” Vestberg said of FWA at the Goldman conference. “Our devices coming out on fixed wireless access will basically cover all the frequencies we have, all the way from millimeter wave, C-band and 4G low-band, which is going to make this product enormously great.” 

Cable operators have been keeping an eye on fixed-wireless competition, but have in the past dismissed the service as inferior to wired broadband. But as their own cable broadband subscriber growth has slowed considerably, they are at least giving some credit to the service. 

At the Bank of America Securities conference earlier in September, Charter Communications chief financial officer Jessica Fischer acknowledged that fixed wireless played a role, albeit small, in its Q2 subscriber declines. Later at the BofA conference, Comcast deputy chief financial officer Jason Armstrong said that although fixed wireless is seeing gains, he is most concerned about fiber competition. 

Also: Wireless Connectivity Will Determine Winners in Broadband, Streaming Race, Rutledge Says 

Even other telcos have joined in on the fixed-wireless bashing. Frontier Communications CEO Nick Jeffery said at the Communacopia conference that comparing fixed wireless to fiber was like “comparing a Ferrari to a horse.”

According to Moffett, telcos and cable service providers should worry more about fiber. Planned fiber to the home passings more than doubled in 2021 to 4.2 million from 1.9 million in 2020, and he predicts that they should nearly double again to 7.8 million passings by 2022. He added that planned fiber passings will rise to 9.4 million in 2023, 9 million in 2024 and 8.3 million in 2025. Most of those gains will come from projects from three carriers: AT&T, Lumen (with Apollo Global) and Frontier. Moffett estimates that AT&T will add 4,000 fiber passings in 2022, 3.75 million in 2023, 3.25 million in 2024 and 2.6 million in 2025. Lumen is expected to add 1 million, 2.4 million, 2.5 million and 2.5 million passings in the same time frame, while Frontier should add 1 million, 1.5 million, 1.6 million and 1.6 million, according to Moffett.

But those deployments are not without risks, mostly on the cost side, where labor and equipment expenditures are expected to rise, Moffett wrote. As providers build out in less populated areas the cost per home passed will also increase, as well as capital costs due to inflation and a “higher equity risk premium,” Moffett wrote. ■ 

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.