UScellular counts about 57,000 fixed wireless access (FWA) customers today, a figure the company believes could increase significantly when it begins to expand its 5G network using midband spectrum. And if UScellular manages to score US government funding, that could supercharge its FWA plans.
"With infrastructure funding, my goal is to cover every square inch of our footprint [with FWA], if we can," UScellular CEO LT Therivel said during his company's recent earnings call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "That's the promise of the IIJA [Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act] coupled with fixed wireless."
He added: "I've been spending a lot of time talking to folks in [Washington] DC, talking to governors with the concept being that it's very difficult to roll out fixed wireless in an economical way to really sparse rural areas. But it's a heck of a lot more economical than trying to do [it] with fiber."
Midband fixed wireless
After more than a year of testing, UScellular announced earlier this year that it would deploy 5G-powered FWA services over its millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum holdings in parts of ten cities. But the company did not provide any updates about progress during the quarterly conference call.
All of UScellular's 57,000 FWA customers sit on the company's 4G LTE network, with the company offering the service across its entire 4G footprint. The company's FWA customer base has grown 23% over the past year.
Next up, according to UScellular, is an expansion of FWA onto its midband spectrum holdings (midband spectrum typically covers much wider geographic areas than mmWave). The company's networking chief, Mike Irizarry, said UScellular is working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to ensure that the company's midband network won't pose a threat to aircraft altimeters.
UScellular has said it plans to begin the midband 5G buildout in 2023 and that it will take several years to complete the project. The company, which has about $1.9 billion worth of midband spectrum licenses, plans to use equipment from Nokia and Ericsson.
UScellular has been positioning its FWA service alongside the US government's IIJA, which is being administered through the NTIA's Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program (BEAD) Program. However, the NTIA has made it clear that it will give priority to fiber networks, followed by FWA and other networking technologies.
But Therivel seemed nonplussed about the government's position. He noted that UScellular's sister company, TDS, is deploying some fiber. But he suggested that UScellular could move more quickly with an FWA product.
Some analysts agree with Therivel's outlook. The financial analysts at Raymond James noted that UScellular could cash in on a "large opportunity" with FWA, if it successfully expands the service onto midband spectrum and scores government funding. The analysts said the company's FWA opportunity will likely come into focus next year or in 2024.
Verizon and T-Mobile have already made significant progress in the FWA sector. The two companies collectively added 816,000 new FWA customers during the second quarter this year – noteworthy traction considering other broadband providers reportedly have relatively sluggish results for the period.
UScellular counts roughly 5 million mobile customers in the US, making it the nation's fourth-largest wireless network operator. The company runs a wireless network in parts of 21 states, and owns around 4,300 cell towers.
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