U.S. Cellular plans to launch 5G service in Iowa and Wisconsin early next year, but the nation’s fifth-largest carrier is taking a slightly different approach to 5G than some major operators.
In the first quarter of 2020, U.S. Cellular is starting initial 5G deployments in its largest footprints across Iowa and Wisconsin, including major cities like Milwaukee and Des Moines, but the rollouts using 600 MHz spectrum won’t be limited to only dense urban areas.
Wherever the carrier already has an LTE site in its launch markets, it intends to add 5G New Radio (NR) capabilities as well, U.S. Cellular CTO Mike Irizarry told FierceWireless.
“The plan is that at every one of our existing sites, to modernize each one so that it can support the LTE-Advanced features but also 5G NR on the 600 MHz spectrum band,” Irizarry said.
In terms of spectrum, like T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular is using 600 MHz spectrum that is meant to serve as a solid foundational coverage layer for 5G, which Irizarry said is strategically important in order to deliver an appealing 5G offering. Unlike T-Mobile, however, U.S. Cellular is using a clean 10x10 600 MHz channel for 5G.
“What’s different about our deployment is that this 600 MHz channel is not used for LTE, it’s only going to be used for 5G NR,” he said.
That means that all of the resources available on the 600 MHz spectrum be put to use on 5G NR, and not shared between 5G NR and LTE.
The device ecosystem to tap into 5G capabilities is still evolving, and Irizarry said U.S. Cellular is working with device makers like Samsung, Apple, LG, on 5G devices that the carrier expects to see out next year. Chicago-based U.S. Cellular already announced it would carry the latest Apple products, including the iPhone 11, which supports the 600 MHz band.
There is no decision yet on 5G pricing or data plans, and the company’s marketing team is currently working on “what that dimension of the product might be,” according to Irizarry, but with U.S. Celluar’s 5G customers can expect increased speeds and new handsets.
Users with 4G devices also can expect a bump in performance, as the carrier’s 5G enhancements go hand-in-hand with its LTE network modernization project. That includes upgrading hardware and adding LTE-Advanced technologies, as well as additional AWS and PCS spectrum to LTE, Irizarry said, which will expand the channel bandwidth through carrier aggregation and provider faster speeds.
Mid-band and high-band spectrum are also part of U.S. Cellular’s 5G strategy, and will be layered on top of the carrier’s 600 MHz 5G service later on. Irizarry indicated U.S. Cellular is hopeful it will pick up mid-band CBRS 3.5 GHz spectrum at the FCC auction expected to be held next year, and also expressed interest in C-band spectrum. U.S. Cellular already won millimeter wave licenses, spending about $256 million at the FCC’s two 5G spectrum auctions for licenses in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz band.
The network upgrades ensure basebands support both LTE and 600 MHz for 5G, but are also ready to support mmWave once those radios are deployed. Deployments of mmWave radios will start next year, Irizarry said, and part of the initial strategy is to mount mmWave radios higher, 150 -175 feet up, on macro sites to expand coverage.
During mmWave testing, the carrier was seeing super-fast speeds, but range of only a couple hundred of meters. But, by placing radios higher the carrier could extend coverage to around 1,500 to 2,000 meters, while still delivering increased speeds, he explained.
“This will give us broader millimeter wave coverage, faster speeds,” said Irizarry. “And, we’re deploying today small cells to densify the network to address capacity,” which will give the carrier a combination of mmWave on macro and small cell sites for a “breadth of coverage and breadth of speed.”
The 5G rollout will be a multi-year project, with a pace very similar to the carrier’s 4G and VoLTE rollouts, starting with deployments in the largest markets. Those will take about one year, and then U.S. Cellular plans to expand, with the goal of eventually hitting all of its markets with 5G.
U.S. Cellular also plans to leverage its 5G millimeter wave deployments to boost its fixed wireless offering. The carrier already launched a fixed wireless product on LTE using its 700 MHz channel, which Irizarry said is doing “surprisingly well,” and new LTE capabilities from network upgrades will pass through to its current fixed wireless customers. As the carrier deploys mmWave, Irizarry said U.S. Cellular “absolutely” will use “5G on millimeter wave to improve the performance of our fixed wireless offering,” but said 5G for fixed wireless would be more of an evolution of the product rather than a separate launch.
In terms of mobile, Irizarry said it’s hard to know at this point whether there will be a strong uptake for 5G service, but noted that customers’ interest level is “accelerating very fast” as awareness grows and consumers hear more about the promises of 5G.