U.S. Cellular begins deploying mmWave with Ericsson and Nokia

U.S. Cellular has hired both Nokia and Ericsson to provide it with gear for 5G mmWave deployments in the 24 GHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum bands. U.S. Cellular is beginning its deployment of 5G mmWave now, with commercial availability planned for 2021.

The Chicago-based carrier provides 4.9 million connections in 20 states. Its 5G deployments to date have only been on 600 MHz spectrum in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin. In late 2019, U.S. Cellular selected Ericsson as a network equipment vendor for 5G New Radio (NR) hardware and software in Iowa and Wisconsin.

A spokesperson said U.S. Cellular “will have an update shortly about new markets/states that will receive 5G in the second half of the year.” The company plans to augment its network with mid-band and high-band spectrum “over time as the technology and use cases continue to evolve,” she said.

U.S. Cellular is currently operating 5G in the non-standalone configuration, which means that it works in conjunction with its LTE core.

Asked if it planned to upgrade to an 5G standalone core, the spokesperson said, “We are in the process of evaluating the technology and plan on doing lab trials starting this year.”

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In March, former U.S. Cellular CEO Kenneth Meyers said that 5G in its current iteration isn’t that big of a change compared to its 4G counterpart. 

Early this year, U.S. Cellular estimated it would spend from $850 million to $950 million for capital expenditures in 2020, and it didn’t change that forecast when it reported its Q1 2020 earnings in April. But Meyers indicated the Capex numbers could change depending on the progress it makes with its vendors for mmWave equipment.

Meyers recently retired and has since been replaced by Laurent Therivel effective July 1. Therivel was previously CEO of AT&T Mexico.

Mid-band CBRS spectrum

Ericsson said today it was also providing 4G Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) equipment and services to U.S. Cellular.The carrier is among the FCC’s list of qualified bidders in the priority access license (PAL) Auction 105 for CBRS, which began last week. The auction offers a total of 70 MHz of available spectrum. Many wireless carriers are expected to pick up some of the mid-band spectrum to augment their networks in major urban markets. They could also use the CBRS spectrum to offer private wireless services to enterprises.

For its part, Nokia said it was also providing U.S. Cellular with its Nokia AirFrame system to enable a virtualized RAN.

And U.S. Cellular has also opted to include Nokia’s Worldwide IoT Network Grid (WING), which provides businesses with self-service capability to manage their IoT devices.