U.S. Cellular launches fixed services over existing LTE network

U.S. Cellular is now offering a fixed wireless service over its existing LTE network in select locations throughout its coverage area. The company said the offering is designed to make use of excess network capacity in rural areas that might not have access to a wired internet connection, and that it is helping to drive sales of the company’s phones and mobile services.

U.S. Cellular’s new service ranges in price from 20 GB for $40 per month to 90 GB for $70 per month. Users who travel over their data allotment don’t face overage charges but will have their connections slowed to 2G speeds. Interestingly, U.S. Cellular also offers an “unlimited” option but cautions that users who consume more than 160 GB per month on that plan will then have their connections slowed to 2G speeds.

To be clear though, those data allotments sit at or below most users’ average monthly data consumption, at least on stationary connections. For example, cable company Altice said recently that its wired internet customers consumed an average of 220 GB per month during the second quarter, while Comcast said its Xfinity home internet users consumed an average of 151 GB during the month of June. And startup Starry found in its tests last year in Boston that its customers’ median monthly traffic per customer was around 480 GB per month, but that the top 20% of users consumed an average of around 1.6 TB per month. Indeed, video-heavy internet services like Netflix, particularly those used on high-resolution TVs, often consume significant amounts of data.

(Mobile usage trends are much different. For example, U.S. Cellular noted that that its phone customers with unlimited data plans use an average of 8 GB per month during the second quarter.)

To access U.S. Cellular’s new fixed wireless service, customers must first check the company’s website to see if it is available in their location. Then they must purchase U.S. Cellular’s D-Link router that connects to U.S. Cellular’s LTE network and creates a local Wi-Fi network for users’ computers, tablets and other devices. In its terms of service, U.S. Cellular cautions that users cannot move the router to another location.

“We have a 4G fixed wireless product out there today that is really aimed at the more rural areas where you don't have cable or any other competitive product. And it's a nice product, it drives nice incremental sales,” explained U.S. Cellular’s Kenneth Meyers during the company’s recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. “Interestingly, for about 25% of the new adds that come in taking that fixed wireless coming with it, bring a handset line with them. It's actually driving usage in parts of the network that aren't as challenged in terms of capacity as some of our city centers. So I like it. Nice product.”

Meyers added that U.S. Cellular also continues to test 5G network technology for applications including fixed wireless, but he didn’t provide any specifics.

Meyers hinted earlier this year at the commercial launch of an LTE-based fixed wireless service, noting the company had tested the product in 2017.

U.S. Cellular’s approach to fixed wireless represents yet another technological strategy in an increasingly complex space. For example, Verizon is planning to launch fixed wireless services with its 5GTF standard later this year, and plans to move to the 3GPP’s 5G standard shortly thereafter. Meantime, AT&T is deploying its own fixed wireless service to more than 1.1 million locations by 2020, while C Spire is using a version of the 802.11 standard for its own fixed wireless offering.