US Cellular CTO: ‘For 5G, you really need all the spectrum bands available’
US Cellular began its 5G journey in two of its most vital markets, Iowa and Wisconsin, launching its first networks early this year. While the operator has already delivered next-gen services to a number of “cluster sites” in these states, US Cellular’s CTO Mike Irizarry told RCR Wireless News that rollout is just getting started.
“Our overall strategy for 5G is the multi-year modernization of the network to enable 5G, but also to improve existing LTE performance,” he said. “The process of activating sites is going on constantly. We’ll do that for the rest of this year and into 2021. We are looking, I believe, at 2023 or perhaps 2024, to have complete the modernization.”
Irizarry provided some insight into US Cellular’s deployment plan, stating that the operator wanted to “showcase the new technology through multiple impressions,” and the best way to do so was to target places that consumers frequented the most with their phones.
“If you target areas with high usage, they’re going to experience that 5G much more often,” he continued. “So, we really focused on high-usage areas for our deployment.”
Further, by targeting high-density locations, the operator was able to augment capacity for increases in usage because 5G is spectrally more efficient than 4G.
“We’re able to stretch our capacity investments better that way,” commented Irizarry.
He added that as the operator moves into wave two, it’s modifying its deployment target to not just high usage areas, but also to Direct Marketing Areas (DMAs). Targeting DMAs, explained Irizarry, allows for maximum customer impressions.
Of course, US Cellular isn’t just targeting consumers; the operator has partnered with cities and officials, and its 5G services have received “tremendous interest from business, from small to large.”
Racine, WI, which got a US Cellular 5G network in February, received a smart city award, so US Cellular worked with the city’s mayor and other city officials to demonstrated 5G’s benefits and capabilities.
In addition, Irizarry said that the US Cellular is working with a number of utilities unique to the company’s footprint.
“They have reached out to us for help to design and potentially operate their networks,” he said, “and a critical element of that would be 5G capabilities.”
The operator is also building new capabilities that are part of the core and “maybe even further up the stack” that are focused on enabling the enterprise. While the company activated these platforms a few years ago, Irizarry said they’re now being evolved for 5G.
When it comes to spectrum, US Cellular believes you need all the spectrum bands available.
Currently, as part of its 5G deployment, the operator has low-band coverage in the form of 600 MHz spectrum, which provides a breadth of coverage, as well as mid-band, or more specifically, PTS and AWS spectrum.
“Just by activating 5G and modernizing the networks using those two bands in our carrier aggregation mode, we have been able to essentially double our speeds,” stated Irizarry.
US Cellular’s coverage gap, then, is high-band or mmWave, which cannot provide adequate coverage on its own, but can deliver blazing fast speeds. But, according to Irizarry, it’s in the works.
“We’ve been very active in the mmWave auction,” he confirmed. “We’ve been trialing [high-band] for a couple of years now. We are doing a fixed wireless trial of mmWave this year and part of our long-term strategy includes deploying a layer of mmWave to improve speeds and capacity of the network.”
While Irizarry acknowledge that there continue to be many customers that won’t make the switch immediately to a 5G device — the Samsung Galaxy S20 being the only one currently offered on US Cellular’s network — he did say that those who have tested the new network have had positive feedback, remarking on the drastically improved speeds.
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