U.S. Cellular sets 5G launch in Wisconsin, Iowa for early 2020

U.S. Cellular plans to launch 5G using low-band 600 MHz spectrum in Wisconsin and Iowa, including parts of Des Moines, Madison, and Milwaukee, among others. (Getty Images)

U.S. Cellular, the nation’s fifth-largest wireless carrier, announced Wednesday that it will launch 5G service in Iowa and Wisconsin during the first quarter of 2020. 

The carrier’s initial deployment will use 600 MHz spectrum, which is the same low-band spectrum that T-Mobile, the country’s third-largest carrier, is first using to deliver broad 5G coverage. Devices with support for 600 MHz still need to get into more consumers’ hands, but U.S Cellular said even customers with 4G devices will start to experience better network quality as the carrier upgrades cell sites with new 5G-capable technology.

U.S Cellular’s 5G deployment using low-band spectrum will cover hundreds of communities across rural and urban areas in Wisconsin and Iowa, which are two of U.S Cellular’s largest markets.

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Some of the larger cities in Iowa that will get U.S. Cellular’s 5G service include parts of Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque, and Waterloo. In Wisconsin, parts of Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee, Oshkosh, and Racine will see 5G service, which U.S. Cellular said will initially provide faster data speeds, more responsive mobile experiences and the ability to connect more devices to the network at once.

“Iowa and Wisconsin are two of our largest markets and we’re excited to introduce 5G technology to customers in both urban and rural communities where other carriers have not,” said Michael Irizarry, executive vice president and chief technology officer of U.S. Cellular, in a statement. “Broader 5G coverage will provide our customers with even faster data connection speeds for a better experience when they do the things they love on their devices.”

The rollouts in Wisconsin and Iowa represent the first phase of the carrier’s multi-year network upgrade for 5G, and build on previous investments in new hardware and software capabilities. As it prepares to launch 5G early next year, U.S. Cellular also continued to roll out VoLTE technology in 2019. At mid-year the company had 1.2 million customers on VoLTE service, which was commercially deployed in Iowa, Wisconsin and the carrier’s Northwest markets.

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U.S. Cellular tapped equipment vendors Ericsson and Nokia for network upgrades and 5G deployment efforts, including 5G New Radio (NR) hardware and software.

On the company’s second quarter earnings call Irizarry said U.S. Cellular’s network modernization project would use technologies like 4x4 MIMO, License Assisted Access (LAA), 256 QAM, and LTE-M to deliver LTE-Advanced features to customers.

The carrier’s network enhancements include replacing base stations with new basebands that are 5G capable via software upgrades. As part of its 5G work, U.S. Cellular has also been moving radios to the top of towers to improve coverage in rural communities.

U.S. Cellular is initially using low-band 600 MHz spectrum, which provides better widespread coverage than high-capacity millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum larger carriers’ like Verizon and AT&T have leaned on for initial deployments. But the company reiterated that it plans to augment its 5G network with both mid- and high-band spectrum over time “as the technology and use cases continue to evolve.”

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