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Digital Divide

UScellular launches 5G FWA, eyes government subsidies

After more than a year of testing, UScellular announced that it is rolling out 5G-powered fixed wireless access (FWA) services over its millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum holdings in parts of 10 cities.

The launch represents an expansion of the company's existing 4G-powered FWA service that's available across much of its mobile footprint. That offering supplies speeds up to 20 Mbit/s and currently supports 50,000 subscribers. UScellular, which counts a total of 5 million mobile customers, joins Verizon in offering FWA over mmWave spectrum.

UScellular said that its new 5G "Home Internet+" service is now available in parts of East Moline and Rock Island, Illinois; Bettendorf, Cedar Falls, Davenport, Dubuque and Waterloo, Iowa; Yakima, Washington; and Beloit and Janesville, Wisconsin. The company is currently broadcasting the offering from its macro cell towers but plans to expand it to "dozens" of additional locations throughout this year via macro towers and small cells.

UScellular transmits its signals from atop cell towers. (Source: UScellular. Used with permission.)
UScellular transmits its signals from atop cell towers.
(Source: UScellular. Used with permission.)

A UScellular representative said that the operator is offering three Home Internet+ service plans, all of which include unlimited, uncapped usage: 50 Mbit/s for $49.99 per month; 150 Mbit/s for $64.99; and 300 Mbit/s for $84.99. However, the operator is offering $20 off the monthly charge for 36 months on all plans.

The service works off of radio equipment from Nokia and Ericsson and uses an in-home receiver from Inseego running a Qualcomm chipset.

FWA economics and the IIJA

UScellular appears to be positioning its Home Internet+ in line with the US government's Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The recently passed legislation promises to allocate up to $45 billion to build broadband networks in unserved and underserved areas throughout the US, via a series of state grants. The NTIA is currently crafting the rules for allocation.

On its website, and via a white paper, UScellular argues that policymakers should consider FWA services like Home Internet+ as an economically viable option for government subsidies.

"It is estimated that a FWA solution can eliminate as much as 40% of the cost compared to FTTH [fiber to the home]," the company wrote. "To be clear, denser fiber is still very much needed – towers need to be connected with fiber, and there are certain urban and suburban communities where a fiber-to-the-home approach makes economic sense. However, as you move towards more rural or hard-to-serve areas, FWA can provide a more timely and cost-effective approach than trying to cover every square mile of unserved America with fiber, while also benefiting mobility."

Interestingly, UScellular also provided a look at the economics it is using to determine where it can profitably offer FWA – and where it can't.

"To justify unsubsidized investment, we must be able to reach several hundred homes and businesses per tower (note: our economics require over 150 subscribers at $65 per month to equip an existing tower with the necessary equipment; or approximately 500 subscribers to build a new tower, and we can't assume that everyone will adopt the service.) This density is rare in unserved and underserved locations, which is a key driver of the current digital divide," UScellular wrote.

Thus, the company is arguing that policymakers should subsidize its FWA services in areas that don't meet those parameters, and it isn't alone in lobbying policymakers to consider FWA when it comes to doling out federal subsidies.

"The Rural Wireless Association (RWA) met recently with the NTIA to discuss the important role of fixed and mobile wireless solutions," the association wrote in a recent release. "RWA stressed how factors such as serving difficult terrain, speed of deployment, lower construction costs, and future-proofing networks through network virtualization are all strong reasons to include funding for wireless networks."

That stance is in opposition to lobbying by the fiber industry, which has argued that fiber networks should be funded by the government's IIJA program but FWA networks should not. For example, the Fiber Broadband Association recently wrote to the FCC in favor of "helping make access to all-fiber networks possible to all Americans," arguing that the total cost of ownership (over 10 years) for fiber is half the cost of FWA.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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