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The Core

UScellular CTO updates on midband, standalone 5G

UScellular CTO Mike Irizarry is in no rush to deploy the operator's midband spectrum licenses.

"We don't want to deploy it prematurely if the benefit is going to be lost on the customer," Irizarry told Light Reading. "We're keeping our ear to the ground about what our competition are doing."

UScellular counts roughly 5 million US mobile customers, making it the nation's fourth-largest wireless network operator. The company runs a wireless network in parts of 21 states.

Irizarry said that UScellular will "respond accordingly" when it comes to rolling out midband spectrum licenses. The operator spent a total of around $1.9 billion across two recent FCC midband spectrum auctions – Auctions 107 for C-band and 110 for 3.45GHz-3.55GHz (which Light Reading is calling the "Andromeda auction").

T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T also participated in those auctions and have already disclosed how and when they plan to put those licenses into action. But Irizarry said that UScellular will deploy its midband holdings when the time is right. He said the company will do so when suitable and inexpensive equipment becomes available, or potentially earlier if the company feels the need to respond to competitors.

"Most of the applications on devices really can be served by 30, 50, 60 Mbit/s, no problem," Irizarry said, noting that those are the speeds currently supported by UScellular's 4G LTE network. "We don't want to rush to deploy something unless it's going to make a difference in the customer experience."

UScellular CTO Mike Irizarry (Source: UScellular. Used with permission.)
UScellular CTO Mike Irizarry
(Source: UScellular. Used with permission.)

Irizarry said that UScellular may wait to deploy its midband spectrum holdings until it can obtain one radio that supports both bands. T-Mobile executives have suggested that such radios may be available in the 2023 timeframe. Irizarry added that UScellular's C-band spectrum licenses will be released for commercial applications starting in 2023, while its Andromeda holdings will be available for commercial use starting later this year.

For its part, AT&T has said that it will not wait for integrated radios. Instead, the operator expects to begin deploying its C-band and Andromeda spectrum holdings later this year by installing two different radios, one for each band. A portion of AT&T's C-band holdings are available now for commercial use.

From FWA to standalone 5G

When it comes to the standalone version of 5G, Irizarry said, "we're in the midst of deploying it right now." He said that the company has already worked with its vendor Nokia to test the technology, and the two are now working to put standalone 5G into commercial production.

"It's not a trivial deployment," Irizarry said, explaining that the network core must be upgraded alongside components from a variety of suppliers. "The core is the core, and you've got to get it right."

Irizarry said UScellular expects to light up its standalone 5G core – which supports 5G operations apart from a 4G network – sometime later this year. He said the carrier would slowly begin shifting traffic onto its standalone core in the coming months and years.

At the same time, UScellular is moving ahead with a deployment of fixed wireless access (FWA) services. Irizarry said the operator already counts 50,000 customers on its 4G-powered FWA service and is working on deploying 5G FWA on its millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum. The company successfully tested mmWave FWA and is now turning its pilot deployments into commercial deployments.

"It's still very early in the process," he said of the company's foray into FWA. "It's just another example of how we view fixed wireless access as a real business opportunity for us."

In that respect, UScellular lines up with T-Mobile and Verizon, which have both promised to build substantial businesses around 5G FWA. AT&T, on the other hand, has voiced skepticism about the widespread use of FWA.

Finally, Irizarry said that UScellular has a plan to shutter its 3G network, as AT&T has already done, but hasn't yet set a public date for the event.

"Our network is ready for shutdown," he said, but noted that UScellular doesn't want to "orphan" customers who are still using the network.

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

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