Another Tiny Wireless Operator Is Launching 5G

Nex-Tech Wireless, which operates a wireless network in urban and rural parts of Kansas and Colorado, announced it will use equipment from Ericsson to launch 5G. The operator is the latest smaller provider to announce plans to upgrade from LTE to 5G.

"Ericsson has been our trusted partner in bringing LTE service to our customers. We're excited to work with them again to bring better voice services to our network, and to lay the groundwork for the next generation of mobile technology in 5G," Jon Lightle, Nex-Tech's CEO, said in a release.

Nex-Tech's new agreement with Ericsson includes several components. First, it involves the operator buying Ericsson's virtual IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) equipment in order to launch Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and WiFi calling. That will position Nex-Tech to provide VoLTE roaming services to other wireless network operators -- that's important considering a wide range of wireless network operators across the country, including Verizon and T-Mobile, are moving their voice calling from 3G-based, circuit-switched networks to IP-based LTE networks. Indeed, Verizon plans to turn off its 3G CDMA network at the end of 2020, which means it will only conduct voice calls over VoLTE after that date. Nex-Tech is among a large and growing number of smaller wireless network operators that are also embracing support for VoLTE.

But Nex-Tech's deal with Ericsson also positions the operator to move to 5G. Specifically, the companies announced that Ericsson is installing 600MHz 5G equipment, and that Nex-Tech will use the vendor's virtual EPC (Evolved Packet Core) and "Cloud Core" network to shift to 5G.

Nex-Tech's Aaron Gillespie wouldn't provide a 5G launch date, but said Nex-Tech would upgrade its 400 cell towers to 5G over several years. He said the operator would deploy 5G first in its 600MHz spectrum and then into other spectrum bands, including the millimeter-wave spectrum it won during the FCC's recent 24GHz/28GHz auction.

Nex-Tech isn't the only smaller wireless network operator to throw its hat into the 5G ring. Carolina West Wireless in North Carolina made a very similar announcement earlier this year, disclosing its plans to buy LTE and 5G equipment, as well as VoLTE and WiFi calling services, from Ericsson. And U.S. Cellular, the nation's fifth largest wireless network operator with operations across Texas, Washington state, Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Tennessee and elsewhere, recently announced it would launch 5G in 2020 with equipment from Nokia and Ericsson.

The nation's big wireless operators -- Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint -- are all in various stages of rolling out 5G in locations across the country with equipment from vendors including Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung.

The Huawei question
What's particularly noteworthy about these 5G announcements is that they include equipment from major vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson. So far, the 40 smaller US operators that use wireless equipment from China's Huawei -- including United TelCom, SI Wireless, United Telephone Association, Union Telephone Company, Viaero, Nemont/Sagebrush Cellular and James Valley Telecommunications -- have remained silent on the 5G topic.

Huawei, of course, remains embroiled in the wider trade war between China and the US. In May, the US government effectively banned US companies from doing business with Huawei. However, as The Washington Post recently reported, the rural US telecom companies that use Huawei equipment have received several waivers for that ban, which Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said would provide the companies "more time to wean themselves off" telecom equipment from Huawei.

Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, told the publication that the smaller wireless network operators represented by the group are now talking to other vendors about replacing Huawei equipment.

Along those lines, Congress is considering legislation that would provide around $700 million for US telecom providers to rip out Huawei's equipment and replace it with gear from other vendors. But CoBank said in June that the actual costs of that effort are likely to top $1 billion.

Huawei and 5G will likely be hot topics next week at the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA) trade show in Providence, R.I. Indeed, Huawei is hosting a session titled "Let's Collaborate to Make America's Communication Networks Safer." The CCA represents the nation's smaller wireless network operators.

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

Mike Dano 9/10/2019 | 5:06:34 PM
Update I updated this story with additional information from Nex-Tech.
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