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U.S. Cellular Joins Verizon, AT&T in Eyeing 3.5 GHz CBRS Operations

Mike Dano
8/26/2019

Add U.S. Cellular to the list of major wireless network operators that are looking at ways to leverage the 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum band.

"We are looking very hard at CBRS, both unlicensed and licensed," U.S. Cellular CTO Michael Irizarry told Light Reading, noting that the operator has conducted tests of operations in the CBRS band in the past, and is planning to conduct additional tests in the future. "We want to be able to take advantage of it."

U.S. Cellular's CTO said that the operator continues to view licensed spectrum as the "anchor" for its network, but he said the operator is increasingly dipping its toe into operations in unlicensed spectrum as a way to increase network capacity and speeds. Specifically, he confirmed that U.S. Cellular is currently deploying LAA technology, which essentially allows wireless network operators to expand LTE transmissions in licensed spectrum bands into the 5GHz unlicensed band to provide faster speeds and more network capacity.

"We think that unlicensed spectrum allows you to deal with capacity spikes and the opportunity to deliver higher speeds, opportunistically," Irizarry said.

Irizarry said U.S. Cellular is considering using the 3.5GHz CBRS band in a similar way.

Irizarry's comments appear to put U.S. Cellular into the same camp as Verizon. As Light Reading previously reported, the nation's largest wireless operator has been deploying CBRS equipment into its network and selling CBRS-capable handsets, moves that are likely designed to allow Verizon to increase network speeds and capacity by combining transmissions in CBRS spectrum with its other, licensed spectrum bands via carrier aggregation technology.

AT&T, the nation's other big wireless network operator, is also planning to make extensive use of CBRS spectrum, though through a much different service. The operator announced last year it would use equipment from CommScope and Samsung and CBRS spectrum to deliver fixed wireless Internet services to customers in rural areas. A top executive from the operator told Mobile World Live that AT&T would begin rolling out the fixed wireless Internet service later this year.

AT&T's CBRS launch timeline aligns with the end of the government's testing of the unique spectrum-sharing technology developed specifically for the 3.5GHz band. Those in the CBRS sector expect to begin "Initial Commercial Deployments" (ICD) in the band in September. ICDs involve FCC staff essentially looking over vendors' shoulders to make sure that everything is working right. If everything looks OK during the IDCs, only then will the FCC allow real commercial deployments, at least in unlicensed scenarios. The FCC has said it will auction 3.5GHz spectrum licenses next year.

Already the CBRS Alliance has scheduled a launch event on Sept. 18 with a speech from FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, the commissioner who led the government's CBRS work. Also speaking at the CBRS Alliance's launch event are executives from Verizon and Charter. Charter, for its part, has tested both fixed and mobile operations in the CBRS band, as well as a private LTE network in CBRS spectrum.

U.S. Cellular is also a member of the CBRS Alliance.

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

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