U.S. Cellular, the nation's fourth-largest wireless network operator, offered a few more details about its ongoing network-upgrade plans Monday, including its intention to improve its 5G network with millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum and its 4G network with CBRS spectrum.
The operator also said it plans to expand its existing 4G fixed wireless offering with mmWave 5G options.
However, it's fair to say that U.S. Cellular's efforts are relatively modest, given the operator's regional focus. The carrier counts around 5 million customers on a network that covers portions of Texas, Washington state, Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Tennessee and elsewhere.
U.S. Cellular isn't providing very many specifics about its plans. The operator didn't offer any financial details about its network-upgrade efforts, nor did it say how much territory it would cover with either CBRS or mmWave. U.S. Cellular previously said its capital expenses in 2020 could be as much as $950 million, in part due to 5G. That's far more than the $710 million the operator spent on its network and operations during 2019.
U.S. Cellular announced Monday it is beginning a "multi-year deployment" of 5G services in its mmWave spectrum, and that it expects to launch commercial service sometime in 2021. The company said it would do so with 24GHz, 28GHz and 39GHz mmWave equipment from Ericsson; 24GHz and 28GHz equipment from Nokia; and 28GHz equipment from Samsung.
The company will start its mmWave deployment with macro towers and then augment that with small cells, essentially reiterating comments the company's CTO made to Light Reading in 2019. However, U.S. Cellular representatives declined to answer questions about how many small cells it might deploy for the effort.
U.S. Cellular initially launched 5G services on its 600MHz spectrum at the beginning of 2020. The company had initially planned to launch 5G sometime in 2019, but a spokesperson told Light Reading earlier this year the launch was pushed back due to the operator's inability to obtain devices for the service.
U.S. Cellular launched the 5G Samsung Galaxy S20 smartphone in March; the gadget can support 5G in both mmWave and 600MHz spectrum bands.
U.S. Cellular's move to add mmWave spectrum to its existing 600MHz 5G deployment should dramatically increase customers' speeds, but only in select areas. That's because 5G in mmWave spectrum can generally support blazing fast-speeds, albeit across relatively tiny coverage areas. Meantime, 5G signals in 600MHz spectrum generally support speeds similar to 4G, albeit across vast geographic areas.
U.S. Cellular has so far declined to charge extra for 5G.
The company confirmed it will use 5G in mmWave spectrum for both fixed and mobile applications. The company is already offering fixed Internet services on its 4G network starting at $50 per month for 25GB of data. U.S. Cellular will join Verizon and others in using mmWave spectrum to offer fixed Internet services inside homes and offices.
Tucked away in U.S. Cellular's announcement Monday was its agreement with Ericsson to purchase "4G Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) equipment and services as U.S. Cellular continues its 5G modernization program."
A U.S. Cellular representative declined to answer questions about that statement, but company executives have previously told Light Reading that U.S. Cellular was considering using CBRS spectrum for network augmentation. Specifically, U.S. Cellular CTO Michael Irizarry told Light Reading that the operator could use 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum as a way to add additional capacity to its network, as it currently does via LAA technology in the 5GHz band for 4G.
It's yet unclear whether U.S. Cellular will use CBRS spectrum on a licensed or unlicensed basis. The company is currently registered to participate in the FCC's ongoing CBRS spectrum auction. Winners in that auction will gain exclusive use over a portion of the band. However, another portion of the band is being held for unlicensed uses.