UScellular extends mmWave reach for rural areas in 5G FWA trial

UScellular this week showed millimeter wave isn’t just for high-density urban areas, stretching signals over a distance of 7 kilometers (around 4.35 miles) with sustained average download speeds of 1 Gbps in a 5G fixed wireless access trial.  

It marked the farthest distance for a 5G mmWave FWA connection in the U.S., according to UScellular.

The field test was conducted on the carrier’s commercial network in Janesville, Wisconsin, over 28 GHz spectrum with partners Ericsson, Qualcomm and Inseego. The test delivered average uplink speeds of about 55 Mbps. 

It applied Ericsson extended-range software to the vendor’s commercial hardware Antenna Integrated Radio (AIR) 5322 advanced antenna system, as well as Inseego’s 5G outdoor CPE (customer premises equipment) utilizing Qulacomm’s 5G FWA platform.

The latest test was a significant improvement since September, when UScellular reached a distance of 5 km with speeds above 100 Mbps with 5G over 28 GHz. Ericsson and Qualcomm were partners on that trial as well, although Inseego wasn’t named at the time.

Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts, categorized the latest test as “an interesting and exciting development” for millimeter wave, which is often focused on adding capacity in densely populated urban markets.  

“This is a non-urban use of it, this is for long-distance rural use and connecting people who don’t have internet,” he told Fierce. “That’s a good thing, that’s a whole new business area.”

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U.S. Cellular is on track to trial 5G FWA in a few markets later this year, with a commercial launch to follow, according to a company spokesperson.

“We believe that every household and business deserve access to reliable Internet access no matter where they are located, and the results we achieved in this latest mmWave test further confirm that wireless technology is key to providing high-speed broadband service in both urban and rural areas,” said Mike Irizarry, executive vice president and chief technology officer, UScellular in a statement.

The regional carrier, now the nation’s fourth largest since Sprint and T-Mobile merged, feels extended-range mmWave can help address the “last-mile” connectivity challenge and meet growing data demands. It’s looking to residential as well as businesses like schools and hospitals.

RELATED: U.S. Cellular, Ericsson, Qualcomm stretch mmWave’s reach

“I think there’s a real opportunity there,” Madden said of mmWave 5G for rural FWA, noting there’s federal funding that goes along with this kind of rural internet development, so it could be partially government funded. He also believes “it could be very profitable as a business.”

Mobile Experts conducted an economic study on whether mmWave could be used in this kind of rural FWA scenario, and determined that it’s a sensible option.

“If you have a density of population that’s above a certain threshold that’s streaming Netflix at the same time you could actually use up all the capacity for a 5G band in the lower frequencies, so this millimeter wave band makes more sense because you have enough capacity to serve hundreds of people within that few square miles of coverage area,” he explained.

Serving that number of people in a rural area with something like 2 GHz, capacity would be eaten up, he said, but not the case with high-band millimeter wave.   

While the testing scenario is highly tailored environment for optimal results, Madden noted the companies demonstrated mmWave can work over long distances and there aren’t any fundamental physics that get in the way.

And he said it’s important to show that peak 1 Gbps speed in a test like U.S. Cellular’s, where there’s one user and a single fixed CPE. In a scenario where the capacity is spread out among 200 homes using the same spectrum channel, that 1-2 gigabits would be divided and get down to 10-20 Mbps “really fast” which Madden sees as a more realistic scenario.

“People would not expect to get a gigabit per second, but they’d probably all share that link and during peak hours you might have enough bandwidth for everyone to stream an HD video,” he added.