Is fixed wireless access a true alternative for home broadband?

My recent experience with a major UK operator’s 5G home broadband service suggests it may not be.

| Richard Haas

We are now five years into the 5G era and many of the envisaged use cases still haven’t been realised. IoT adoption is scarce, augmented reality is nascent, and the metaverse is mostly a buzzword.

Analysts and industry insiders have, however, found one major 5G “success story”. They say fixed wireless access (FWA) is on the rise, and only made possible by 5G’s improved speeds.

Many of the use cases set out in the ITU’s infamous “5G triangle” have yet to materialise.

The Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) says it has identified over 455 operators that have launched FWA networks worldwide, with only around 20 per cent or so using 5G.

While the vast majority of these services still rely on LTE, the GSA says the number of 5G deployments is growing. The organisation concludes mobile is now a “mainstream mechanism” for delivering home broadband.

But is 5G truly an alternative to fixed home broadband options?

My recent experience with one major UK operator’s 5G home broadband service suggests the industry still has some work to do if it hopes to compete with more mainstream broadband options.

The service simply wasn’t reliable

I recently moved to a slightly larger apartment in London, a little further away from the centre. I soon realised I didn’t have many great broadband options. Fixed-line broadband was limited to 16 Mbps and a cable TV plug was nowhere to be found.

The operator’s status checker said that due to network upgrades, the network in my area might be busier than usual

“Great news, you have 5G in your area,” proclaimed the operator’s website. Hurray. The website advertised average download speeds of 150 Mbps, vastly superior to speeds offered by more traditional providers. And it offered next day delivery. Great for quickly setting up a broadband solution in an unconnected home.

A few days later, I received the router in the mail. But where was I supposed to put it?

There is little guidance from the company, which suggested only that a windowsill was “probably” the best place for it.

Having hot-spotted on the same network on my phone since moving in, I had a good idea of where the best connection might be. Indeed, the office windowsill appeared to offer the best service. But I can’t help wondering if the problem of finding the best spot will be as easy for everyone, especially for those with little technical know-how.

After a quick setup, my new WiFi hotspot was activated. Apart from trying to guess which corner of the house has the best connection, it was “plug and play” as promised. No engineer and no waiting required.

An initial speed test showed a download speed of around 100 Mbps. Not as high as the average, but speedy enough for me.

However, things soon started to go downhill.

The service simply wasn’t reliable. Whether it was due to congestion, or bad signal strength, the speed began to plummet. Most evenings I couldn’t reliably stream Netflix, presumably due to peak time congestion. In addition, the router wouldn’t play nicely with VPNs, which my partner requires for her work.

A quick browse of online reviews suggested I wasn’t the only one with problems

This could be a local issue, and customers in different locations may have a much better experience. The operator admits on its website that real usage conditions depend on where you live and the specific conditions of your home (i.e. how thick your walls are and where the nearest mast is).

While I am on the ground floor of an apartment building, which is far from ideal, my walls and windows are thin. My new flat is also hardly remote. It’s only in zone 2 of London’s public transport system. Yet the network was far from reliable.

The operator’s status checker said that due to network upgrades, the network in my area might be “busier than usual”. This could certainly have been contributing to my problem, but there was no indication of when the disruption would end, and the message was there for at least two weeks.

That isn’t quite good enough for a service that I rely on for streaming and Zoom calls.

A quick browse of online reviews suggested I wasn’t the only one with problems. The service had an average of 1.6 stars out of five, with nearly 1,000 one-star reviews complaining of slow speeds, unreliability and slow customer service.

Despite the variability of the service, the operator and the industry at large are eager to promote long contracts. The service I subscribed to is competitively priced, particularly if you sign up for two years. It’s just £20 a month.

5G FWA may be more suitable for other people

Yet leaving your contract after the 30-day money-back period is tricky, say some reviewers. While the company did sign up to Ofcom’s code of practice for marketing mobile service, it has not signed up to the “Better Broadband Speeds” code of practice.

This means that, unlike most fixed-line broadband companies, it is not required to provide minimum speed estimates and allow a customer to abandon their contract early without penalty if speeds are vastly below this estimate. This provides little certainty for the end user.

While my experience with 5G FWA has been far from ideal, it wouldn’t be fair to say it is an indictment of all FWA products. Despite its reliability problems, it still worked. It may be more suitable for other people. Those who move around a lot, perhaps, or who live in houseboats.

In any case, I decided to cancel my service and try other options. Luckily, I opted for a monthly contract, so leaving should be easy.


  • Tobias Hidalgo Stitz says:

    150 Mbps seems to point to FDD 5G speeds, simply using a re-farmed 4G carrier. Were you able to check that you were actually using the 5G network instead of 4G?
    I would expect better service if you were served with acceptable coverage using the n78 TDD band.

  • Richard Haas says:

    Thanks for your comment! No, I couldn’t check although the MNOs app suggested my connection was fluctuating between what it called “4G+” and “5G”. Total speeds never really exceeded 150 Mbps so perhaps that suggests it was a FDD 5G band.

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