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US Cellular Seeking Rural 5G Advantage

US Cellular settled on a unique approach to implementing 5G standards with a view to gaining a competitive edge while improving service for its rural customers, its technology chief explained.

CTO Mike Irizarry told Mobile World Live the operator aims to take advantage of certain elements of the 5G technology standard which it believes “other carriers might not be aware of or not think that they’re important”.

He declined to name specific features under consideration but hinted they are related to the rural composition of US Cellular’s markets and the specific interests of its customers.

However, Irizarry reiterated the operator’s take on 5G will use much of its spectrum portfolio, including its 600MHz; 800MHz; AWS; and PCS assets, along with a technology called dual connectivity, which will allow user devices to maintain constant contact with both the 4G and 5G networks.

Work on US Cellular’s 5G upgrade is already underway: Irizarry said it is working with Nokia and Ericsson on a modernization effort spanning its base stations, antennas and backhaul assets. The goal is to complete those updates in a set of undisclosed priority markets by the end of 2019, though he noted actual 5G launch dates will be tied to the availability of compatible handsets.

Densification dilemma

Though larger operators have undertaken massive densification projects ahead of mmWave deployments, Irizarry said US Cellular’s initial plan is to use its existing infrastructure, including the core, towers and data centres. Once the operator (which is a qualified bidder in the FCC’s ongoing 24GHz auction) has a better idea of what mmWave spectrum it has to deploy, it can adjust its strategy accordingly, he said.

If the operator’s goal is to deploy a product such as home internet in a dense urban or suburban environment, densification would become necessary. But if the aim is to provide a strategic speed boost for smartphone users by combining mmWave with other spectrum assets (similar to the way operators use LAA deployments today), he explained “you might not need as much densification to accomplish that” since sites are usually already placed in high traffic areas.

Fixed wireless and 5G opportunity

US Cellular launched a fixed wireless access broadband product using its LTE network in August 2018. The CTO said the offering had been well-received by customers but added the operator is still evaluating whether customers would see value if service were upgraded to 5G speeds.

The uncertainty about the 5G business model applies across use cases: “The promise of 5G is exciting and it’s there…but the economic model is still being figured out. That’s why people are trialing different things, to see what sticks.”―Mobile World Live

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