UScellular Plans Mid-band Deployment in Second Half of Year


Connect (X) 2023

With low-band and high-band 5G spectrum at tower sites with 80 percent of its traffic, UScellular will commence deployment of mid-band spectrum in the second half of 2023, according to Mike Irizarry, Company Executive VP and Chief Technology Officer. He spoke to Inside Towers Contributing Analyst Martha DeGrasse during this week’s Connectivity Expo in New Orleans.

UScellular plans to start activating sites with 3.45 GHz spectrum in the middle of this year, followed by the C-band. Irizarry said he is optimistic that the clearing of the C-band by the satellite companies will be completed by the end of the year, which will allow the carrier to start turning on C-band sites. Deployment will then accelerate into 2024.

The mid-band spectrum deployment will consist of two radios at each site (3.45 GHz and C-band) with a common baseband unit, but the carrier is working with the vendors to develop a single box radio that will host most traffic by the end of this year or beginning next year. UScellular has a long relationship with Ericsson and Nokia and has recently introduced Samsung into its vendor mix. 

“Supply chain durations for radio equipment and other parts are longer, but it is not impacting our company, because we anticipated the delays and started building up an inventory for it,” Irizarry said. 

UScellular purchased in the CBRS auction Priority Access Licenses which it uses along with General Access Authorization licenses to add speed to its network as needed.

“We think that best performance and reliability is on licensed authorized spectrum,” Irizarry said. “So that’s foundational to how we architect and deploy our systems. And we’ll layer in unlicensed if we think it’ll help customers.”

UScellular has a couple of cores, one dedicated to its business channel and the other dedicated for consumers. “The reason for having two is because the pipeline changes are different between those two segments,” Irizarry said. “And you don’t want to take one down and impact the other if you don’t have to.” 

UScellular has deployed a 5G core, and it has friendly users on it today. Irizarry said 5G SA deployment has been a “long, tough road.”

“It’s a cloud native solution and interfaces with different vendors, which is one of the reasons it’s taken some time to get it to work, but we’re excited about it,” he said.

Irizarry did not speculate on possible monetization economic models, saying that he is confident that the exponential growth of data from the digitalization of society will bring big opportunities. 

“Each of these new technologies lowers the cost to carry a bit of data. And that goes right to the bottom line economics. So I am comfortable with the path we’re on as an industry,” Irizarry said 

Last September, UScellular announced that 12.2 million households have access to unlimited 4G, 5G or 5G mmWave in-home connectivity. Currently, 100,000 households have signed up for fixed wireless service. In the low band spectrum, speeds run anywhere from 25 Mbps to 65 Mbps, depending on how close the house is to the site and whether or not it’s an internal antenna or an external antenna. The mmWave provides speeds of 300 up to 1 Gbps. An external antenna will provide a 4X capacity increase over an internal antenna.

“We are working really hard to make sure state and government officials understand the value of fixed wireless access,” Irizarry said. “We can meet the needs in rural America, for connecting and closing the digital divide.” The carrier has set up a series of demonstrations to prove the capabilities of FWA, including mmWave, and has received “glowing reviews” of the technology, he added.

By J. Sharpe Smith, Inside Towers Technology Editor

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