U.S. Cellular eyes 5G for fixed wireless

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U.S. Cellular said it plans to play in 5G. (Pixabay)

U.S. Cellular has been testing various 5G services, including standards-based 5G equipment in millimeter-wave spectrum, and executives said the company is determined to become a player on the 5G field.

So how exactly might U.S. Cellular—a regional wireless provider with roughly 5 million customers—enter the 5G space?

“We absolutely are looking at fixed wireless as one of the fastest to the market services,” U.S. Cellular CEO Ken Meyers said last week on the company’s quarterly conference call with analysts, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. “Some of the—I’ll call it government-centric or business-centric, those are longer lead time type of sales and probably as we look at it, two to three years out in terms of development of that ecosystem and sales. But the fixed wireless, especially in our type of markets is by far the fastest to market opportunity.”

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Those comments are noteworthy considering U.S. Cellular is already playing in the fixed wireless space, albeit with its existing LTE network. The company earlier this year disclosed that it is offering fixed wireless services on LTE to make use of excess network capacity in rural areas that might not have access to a wired internet connection. U.S. Cellular is offering the service on plans ranging from 20 GB for $40 per month to 90 GB for $70 per month.

But in response to a question during his company’s call last week, Meyers hinted that 5G technology could help U.S. Cellular expand its fixed wireless ambitions.

“We continue to test and learn about 5G through vendor trials. The most recent work has focused on better understanding the propagation characteristics of millimeter wave spectrum and how different deployment options can enhance that coverage,” Meyers said. “This quarter we started testing standards-based radios. These technology learnings combined with ongoing use case studies are crucial inputs to our spectrum strategy, which will be the basis for any actions in the upcoming spectrum auctions.”

Indeed, U.S. Cellular is registered to bid in the FCC’s upcoming millimeter-wave spectrum auctions.

As part of its earnings announcement, U.S. Cellular executives also offered insights into a number of different areas of the company’s business:

Lengthening handset replacement cycle: Meyers said the average U.S. Cellular customer now holds onto their device for 31 months, and he said he expects that figure to grow.

Data usage: Meyers said that 23% of the company’s postpaid customers are now on unlimited plans, “and customers on these unlimited plans now use nearly 9 gigabits of data usage per month.”

Subscribers: U.S. Cellular reported total postpaid gross additions for the third quarter of 172,000, and the loss of 1,000 postpaid customers.

Financials: The company’s total operating revenues for the third quarter were just over $1 billion, up 4% year-over-year, and the company’s adjusted operating income before depreciation and amortization was $197 million, up 18% from a year ago.

On cable’s entry into wireless: “Yes, we’ve seen both Comcast last year and Charter this year start-up, but very, very, very limited impact,” Meyers said. “When I look at the port-ins and port-outs, except for being positive primarily due to our strength in Iowa, there’s not a lot of change anywhere right now.”