Kansas's United Wireless making gains with unlimited data, 4x4 MIMO

United Wireless operates out of Dodge City, Kansas. Source: Flickr user Joseph Novak

One of the more high-tech mobile network operators in the U.S. serves Southwest Kansas out of the town that was the setting for TV’s Gunsmoke.

United Wireless, which claims roughly 22,000 subscribers, has deployed 4x4 MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) – the same technology T-Mobile uses to double the speed of data transmissions – and it is rolling out small cells. The carrier also owns a base station that can support 8x8 MIMO, although devices for that technology have yet to hit the market. And it’s preparing to commercially launch service in the 2.5 GHz band of airwaves.

“All of our cell sites are configured for 200 MB throughput at its peak,” said Mike Laskowsky, United’s network operations manager. “We use our 700 MHz (spectrum) for fixed wireless, 1900 MHz for mobile, and 2.5 GHz is going to be kind of a blend. That’s what we’re rolling out now; we’re going to go live with that the first of October.”

A key network partner for United is Huawei, the Chinese vendor that has emerged as a major player in the worldwide market. Huawei has been effectively banned from selling its network equipment to tier-one carriers in the United States due to government security concerns, but it is quietly growing sales to smaller U.S. carriers such as United.

Perhaps even more important than United’s technology, though, is the carrier’s strategy of offering unlimited data. While T-Mobile and Sprint recently launched new unlimited offerings, both of those offerings come with strings such as limiting video delivery to 480p or throttling users once they exceed specific data allotments.

United offers unlimited data, voice and text to smartphone users for $50 a month when they’re on the company’s network, and a premium plan includes unlimited tethering for $75 a month. (United also provides roaming through a partnership with Sprint, although that service doesn’t include completely unlimited data.) And United markets its all-you-can-eat data plans as a key differentiator against nationwide operators.

“The trend is that people’s data consumption continues to rise every day, and as those consumers outgrow their current carriers’ rate plans, we’re seeing those folks migrate over to our network,” said Jeff Renner, United’s sales and marketing manager. “We’ve actually had to go in and build out additional cell sites to cover that demand, but it’s what consumers want.”

Predictably, those plans spur tremendous amounts of consumption by data-hungry users. One user consumed a staggering 51 GB of data one recent day; the hundredth-heaviest user ate through 21 GB during that time.

“We’re breeding data-hungry customers,” Laskowsky said. “This makes it so that they don’t want to go anywhere else, because it costs them a tremendous amount of money.”

And Laskowsky said he isn’t concerned about running short of capacity any time soon. United has roughly 15 MHz of PCS spectrum in different markets that it has yet to fully use, and it continues to build out small cells to densify its network and keep pace with consumption. It will refarm spectrum as CDMA traffic wanes, and it plans to use 4.5G technologies from Huawei to increase network efficiency and support ever-increasing data usage.

“Huawei has developed some phased array antennas they believe will give you about six times the efficiency we have today; it’s going to give us quite a bit more capacity just with the technology,” Laskowsky said. “Spectrum-wise, I feel comfortable” United can continue to offer unlimited data.

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