Smaller and regional carriers begin to rally around 5G

Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and AT&T have all made very clear that they are either already offering 5G services or will be shortly. But the nation’s smaller and regional wireless network operators don’t seem content to be left behind.

Wisconsin’s Cellcom, a subsidiary of Nsight, said last week it partnered with Ericsson to demonstrate 5G in Green Bay. “We are building the path to 5G now, deploying 5G-ready radios and installing fiber to carry the increased data traffic,” said Cellcom CEO Mark Naze in a release.

Cellcom isn’t alone. For example, U.S. Cellular also tested 5G technology in 28 GHz with Ericsson in Wisconsin in 2017. And in August of this year, the company’s CEO said U.S. Cellular also tested 5G in 3.5 GHz spectrum and will next test 5G using 3GPP standardized equipment.

“We are also conducting work to understand the economic opportunity of various 5G use cases represent for us in our markets,” explained CEO Kenneth Meyers, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks on U.S. Cellular’s most recent conference call. “Understanding these use cases is an important in determining what spectrum bands our carrier needs and critical when evaluating upcoming spectrum auction opportunities.”

C Spire too is moving forward on the 5G front. It conducted a 5G R&D test with Phazr last year and earlier this year launched a 5G-branded fixed wireless service with equipment from Mimosa and Siklu running in unlicensed 5.8 GHz spectrum.

But perhaps most importantly, a large number of smaller and regional wireless operators have signed on to bid in the FCC’s upcoming auction of 28 GHz and 24 GHz spectrum. Union Telephone Company, Nsight, Inland Cellular, Bluegrass and U.S. Cellular are among the smaller regional wireless network operators that have applied to participate in the event. The FCC has billed the millimeter-wave spectrum auction as the nation’s first public auction of 5G licenses.

Indeed, Ericsson’s executive in charge of the U.S. market for small and regional carriers, Amy McCune, said recently that she’s seeing a significant amount of interest among smaller and regional operators in 5G, and she expects at least one of her customers to launch 5G services as early as next year.

Such a move would put those smaller operators on a footing roughly equal to that of the nation’s Tier 1 operators. Verizon has already launched commercial fixed wireless services in the 28 GHz band that it has branded as 5G, while AT&T is promising to launch mobile 5G services in a dozen cities before the end of 2018. T-Mobile, for its part, has said it will build out 5G equipment to 30 cities by the end of this year, though it might not actually offer commercial service by then. And Sprint has said that it is building out massive MIMO equipment that will support its move to commercial 5G service next year.