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

A new achievement on U.S. Cellular’s live 5G network shows millimeter wave isn’t just for dense urban areas.

The nation’s fourth largest carrier, alongside partners Ericsson and Qualcomm, completed an extended range 5G mmWave data call over a distance of more than 5 kilometers (around 3.1 miles) at speeds over 100 Mbps.

It took place in a rural environment in Janesville, Wisconsin, on spectrum in the 28 GHz band.

To reach that distance, the call used extended range software deployed on commercial Ericsson gear, including the AIR 5121 and Baseband 6630, and a 5G customer premises equipment (CPE) device using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 5G Modem-RF System with QTM527 mmWave antenna modules.

U.S. Cellular is seeing more than four times the range for mmWave with the extended-range software from Ericsson combined with a CPE powered by Qualcomm’s latest mmWave antenna module, a U.S. Cellular spokesperson told Fierce.

“Working with our partners, Ericsson has now demonstrated the commercial viability of long-range 5G radio capability for mmWave spectrum,” said Ericsson head of Product Area Networks Per Narvinger in a statement.

U.S. Cellular will start 5G fixed wireless trials in early 2021 and expects to launch commercial service sometime later that year, the spokesperson said via email.

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Today’s announcement puts mmWave 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) for rural and suburban areas in focus. High-band frequencies have limited reach and 5G mmWave deployments have largely been restricted to parts of dense urban areas. Verizon also is using mmWave for 5G fixed wireless access. Its 5G Home service is available in seven cities and the carrier plans to expand to more than 10 by the end of this year.

In August, Counterpoint Research forecast 10 million 5G FWA users by the end of 2020 – driven by deployments in the U.S., but with mmWave focused in metro areas.

At the time analyst firm Mandala Insights noted challenges for 5G FWA over mmWave because of the distance between a wireless base station and CPE, saying they ideally need to be within 500 meters of each other and that shrinks to under 300 meters if CPE is indoors. 

Verizon has pointed to forthcoming CPE with a better chipset as part of its 5G FWA expansion. At an investor conference this week, CEO Hans Vestberg said the next-gen CPE is coming in the fourth quarter “that’s going to handle the radio signal and the Wi-Fi and the hub.” 

Ericsson said the milestone with U.S. Cellular “redefines the perception of 5G mmWave spectrum as an urban- or high-density-only deployment technology and offers new opportunities to use current infrastructure for broader 5G coverage.”

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Operators often point to mmWave as useful in environments that need high bandwidth, like public venues, stadiums and dense metro areas.

For suburban and rural locations, Ericsson said fixed wireless access (FWA) can deliver bandwidth to improve experiences like remote learning and healthcare. The vendor also called out FWA as a cost-effective way to deliver super-fast speeds over mmWave to places such as town halls or hospitals.

U.S. Cellular CTO Mike Irizarry called the data call “a key strategic milestone in our 5G evolution.”

“Expanding 5G mmWave coverage enables us to offer high-speed broadband services to consumers and businesses in rural areas and underserved communities and reinforces our commitment to technological leadership for rural America,” Irizarry said in a statement.

After initially launching 5G using 600 MHz spectrum, U.S. Cellular started mmWave deployments over the summer with Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung as suppliers. The carrier holds mmWave spectrum in the 24 GHz, 28 GHz, and 39 GHz bands and plans to deploy high-band frequencies for both fixed and mobile broadband. A commercial mmWave launch is expected next year.