Fixed wireless access broadband could add more than 10 million subscribers in the next five years, driven by programs geared toward rural markets, according to a report by Wells Fargo telecom and media analysts Eric Luebchow and Steven Cahall.
In their report, the analysts predict that total broadband subscriber additions will accelerate to 4.5-to-5 million annually in 2023 and 2024, fueled mainly by FWA and fiber overbuilds. Over the next five years, Luebchow and Cahall predict FWA will rise from 7.1 million total subscribers at the end of 2021 to 17.6 million in 2027. That growth will come at the expense of cable operators, who the analysts predict will watch their market share erode quickly over the next few years.
While fixed wireless has been around for awhile, Luebchow and Cahall expect competition to heat up significantly in the next three years as federally funded programs spur both wireless and fiber build outs for broadband. In their report, they estimate that FWA would capture 60% of net additions through 2024. Then momentum shifts to fiber overbuilders as new inventory comes on the market.
“In total, we expect +50 [million] new premises to be connected with fiber through 2027 that will reach [two-thirds] of addressable locations,” Luebchow and Cahall wrote. “The competitive dynamics will make the net add story increasingly difficult for the cable players, as we project cable’s share of industry net adds will fall to ~30-35% in 2023 and beyond (vs. ~94% on average the past three years).”
Wells Fargo estimated that fiber builds passed about 50 million homes in 2021 and would more than double that pace to 102 million by 2027.
While there has been some concern around the lack of a labor force to build fiber networks the analysts believe that is less of a factor with bigger telcos.
Initially, Luebchow and Cahall see FWA as being the biggest disruptor, mainly because of its low price -- in some cases as much as 50% lower than wireline broadband offerings -- and adding about 5 million new customers in 2022 and 2023. Fiber will take hold in 2024 and beyond, about the time that many of the build out projects started in the past few years will be completed. While that includes some cable operators -- Altice USA plans to pass 6.5 million homes with fiber by 2025 and Charter and Comcast have extended their fiber reach by about 1 million homes per year over the past few years -- Luebchow and Cahall don’t believe it is enough to reverse the coming share shift.
“The net impact is cable players will have to face stiffer competition within their footprints, and they threaten to be crowded out of a secular story that only has room for [about] 3-5 million net adds per year,” they wrote, adding they expect cable’s share of broadband net additions to drop from 87% in 2021 to 30% to 40% by 2027.
Cable has punched back by bundling broadband and wireless phone service -- Comcast and Charter are both pairing high-speed data service with mobile offerings at a discount.
T-Mobile and Verizon Communications have been most aggressive on the fixed wireless front, adding 532,000 FWA customers in Q1, according to Leichtman Research Group. But so far, most cable companies claim they haven’t seen much impact from the service, which for the most part has been concentrated on less populated areas and has targeted business customers like food trucks and construction trailers.
At the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit May 18, Comcast Cable CEO Dave Watson said so far, FWA hasn’t been a major competitive factor, but that the company is keeping a close eye on the service.
“It doesn't mean that it's not competitive. It doesn't mean that we're going to take it lightly. We're not,” Watson said at the conference, adding that fixed wireless has some issues around speed and latency. T-Mobile advertises FWA speeds between 33 Megabits per second and 182 Mbps, while Verizon FWA service can range from 300 Mbps to 1 gigabit per second. Watson added that two-thirds of Comcast broadband customers take 300 Mbps and higher.
“We're coming from a position of strength in regards to network performance and WiFi performance in the household and we're not going to stop,” Watson said at the conference.
In their report, Luebchow and Cahall noted that FWA speeds are lower than cable, but they are more than adequate for the most popular applications like streaming video.
“FWA should not be dismissed and will be a viable competitive threat, particularly in rural areas and for customers that prioritize a lower price vs. higher speeds,” the analysts wrote. ■
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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.