Carolina West Wireless isn't in the same league as Verizon, AT&T or Sprint. It's not a giant, nationwide wireless network operator with thousands of cell towers, tens of thousands of employees, millions of customers and billions of dollars in revenues.
Nonetheless, it's getting ready for 5G just the same as the big guys.
"We're going through that process, step by step," said David Zylka, CTO of Carolina West Wireless.
One of the company's first steps is its new deal with Ericsson. Earlier this month, Carolina West Wireless announced that it will buy LTE and 5G equipment, as well as Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and WiFi calling services, from Ericsson. "We're making the investments today that will help us evolve our networks tomorrow. Ericsson has been a long-standing partner of ours, and their end-to-end 5G-ready solution offerings allow us to provide our customers with the most advanced technology," Slayton Stewart, Carolina West Wireless' CEO, said in a release.
But what exactly is the company planning to do? Zylka said Carolina West Wireless is an Ericsson shop, and is currently working with the vendor to enhance its existing 4G LTE network with technologies like carrier aggregation and MIMO. But he said that work will also include the installation of Ericsson's 5G-ready antennas and network equipment.
"Ericsson has a platform that we could deploy radios today that support our 4G network, but at some future point, we're able to implement 5G with a software update to the radios," he explained. "So it makes sense that, as we're going through an upgrade cycle with our current 4G networks, and in some cases expanding out our 4G network, we owe it to ourselves to put down a foundation with this equipment that's capable of doing both 4G and 5G, to set us up for the future."
Carolina West Wireless is not alone in buying 5G-ready equipment from the likes of Ericsson and updating it with software. T-Mobile, Verizon and others are currently engaging in similar strategies. But the scale that Carolina West Wireless is working in is much more manageable, and the timeline is much more deliberate.
Formed in 1991 through a partnership among Skyline Telephone, Surry Telephone and Wilkes Telephone, and headquartered in Wilkesboro, NC, Carolina West Wireless operates a wireless network in 11 western North Carolina counties across around a dozen retail outlets. The company counts around 90,000 customers using roughly 300 cell towers. Despite its diminutive size, it commands expansive spectrum holdings across 600MHz, 700MHz, 850MHz, 1900MHz and 2.1GHz.
"As we're coming up with a spectrum strategy, we're trying to say, what bands are we going to have 5G first appear in?" Zylka said, noting that he's currently looking at 5G operations in either the unlicensed 3.5GHz CBRS band or the 600MHz band. "Spectrum is a key component of what we're trying to do."
Zylka said the real question is: "What is the whole ecosystem doing?"
Potential 5G partners
As a regional wireless network operator, Zylka knows Carolina West Wireless cannot exist on its own -- roaming agreements are critical to the company's business model. That's why he's preparing for 5G but leaving his options open. For example, he said one course of action for the company is to potentially ink a 5G roaming agreement with T-Mobile, which has been very clear about its intention to roll out a nationwide 5G network in its own 600MHz spectrum by next year. If Carolina West Wireless inks a 5G roaming agreement with T-Mobile, then it would deploy 5G on its own 600MHz spectrum so that its customers could use T-Mobile's network when they travel outside of North Carolina. But Zylka cautioned that such an agreement has not yet been signed and is only one of the operator's options.
He said that he expects Carolina West Wireless to switch on some kind of 5G service within the next 18 months or so, and possibly earlier depending on what strategy the operator ultimately chooses. (After all, T-Mobile is a bit busy with its pending Sprint merger.)
Taking a phased approach
Nonetheless, Zylka noted that Carolina West Wireless is taking a phased approach to installing 5G on its 300 towers. He said the operator only wants to pay for a technician to climb its towers once, and so that tower climb has to include the installation of any needed 4G technology alongside 5G equipment. And that means the operator's 5G upgrade will happen relatively slowly, one tower at a time, "predicated on traffic and user demand," Zylka said.
"It's going to happen in a wave," he added. "We're not going to do 100% of the network overnight."
And how much will all this cost? "It's not as bad as I thought it was going to be. It's reasonable," Zylka said, without providing specifics.
Interestingly, Zylka said Carolina West Wireless is also upgrading its core network with Ericsson in advance of 5G, but not necessarily to the latest and greatest option. He said the operator currently uses a circuit-switched core network, and will soon upgrade that to a virtualized IMS core in order to support VoLTE technology -- a key imperative for most smaller operators that are looking for roaming revenues. Thus, in its core network, Carolina West Wireless is almost a decade behind the likes of Verizon, which moved to an IMS core almost 10 years ago and is now in the final stages of moving to a fully virtualized 5G core. Zylka said Carolina West Wireless will deploy the "non stand alone" (NSA) version of 5G, which uses LTE's IMS core, and so he's in no rush to move beyond that IMS core network.
But the one thing that worries Zylka is how Carolina West Wireless might get access to 5G phones, at least ones that support the operator's network configuration and spectrum bands. Access to suitable handsets, either for 3G or 4G, has been an ongoing issue for smaller wireless network operators like Carolina West Wireless because handset makers like Samsung and Apple often don't move quickly to support such providers due to their relatively minor customer base.
Obtaining handsets "has been an ongoing struggle," Zylka said.
One final question for Zylka -- and all small wireless network operators in the US -- is one that has far-reaching geopolitical ramifications. It's whether to use equipment from China's Huawei, the world's largest supplier of wireless networking equipment. "I have nothing against Huawei equipment," Zylka said, but reiterated that Carolina West Wireless is an Ericsson shop.
Zylka's position stands in contrast to a number of other smaller wireless network operators like United TelCom, SI Wireless, United Telephone Association and Union Telephone Company that have purchased equipment from Huawei. Indeed, Huawei counts fully 40 mostly small and rural wireless network operators as customers in the US market, or roughly 25% of the members of the Rural Wireless Association in the US. Following President Trump's recent ban on Huawei in the US, there is likely growing discussions about how Huawei's customers in the US will move forward in 5G.