U.S. Cellular’s new roaming tech supports data on one network, voice on another

U.S. Cellular today announced that it has developed a new roaming technology that supports data roaming on one network with fallback to another, different network for voice services. The company said the offering will allow it to provide services to GSM-based carriers, rather than just CDMA-based carriers.

“Our remarkably talented engineering group has led the way in implementing technology that allows for data roaming on one network with a fallback to another carrier for voice services,” Kenneth Meyers, U.S. Cellular’s president and CEO, said today during the company’s earnings call with investors. “This will open up the door for us to provide to more than just CDMA-based carriers, and allow us to better manage the quality of our customers’ roaming experiences.”

Meyers provided some additional comments on the service during a question-and-answer session with analysts on the call.

“In the past, all of our roaming came from CDMA-based carriers, and we thought eventually when we got to VoLTE we’d be able to serve more carriers,” he said. “Well this would allow us to at least meet the data needs of other carriers before we get all the way to VoLTE. So it’s got some real positives behind it.”

U.S. Cellular completed the bulk of its LTE network buildout last year, and today said that its LTE service is available to roughly 99 percent of its postpaid connections. Further, the carrier said that its LTE network is now carrying around 90 percent of its overall network data traffic.

As for roaming specifically, U.S. Cellular’s Meyers said that the operator – which counts almost 5 million wireless customers across roughly two-dozen states – has inked three 4G roaming agreements with other, unnamed operators. “So our customers are now receiving better data experiences as they travel,” he said.

Meyers added that U.S. Cellular is on track to ink “a couple more” roaming agreements. Such roaming agreements both provide service to U.S. Cellular customers where the operator doesn’t operate a network – and they also provide U.S. Cellular with revenues from other operators whose customers roam onto U.S. Cellular’s network. “I’m happy with where roaming is setting up in terms of the revenue picture,” Meyers said.

Such roaming agreements have been critical to regional carriers like U.S. Cellular that don’t operate nationwide networks. But U.S. Cellular is a CDMA-based carrier, which essentially prevents its customers from roaming onto GSM-based carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile. Although LTE networks stand to eliminate this CDMA vs. GSM situation, most carriers still rely on their legacy GSM and CDMA networks to handle at least some voice calls.

Indeed, Meyers added that “our network team is on track to launch our first commercial deployment of Voice over LTE early next year.” VoLTE service essentially turns traditional, circuit-switched voice calls into IP sessions that can be carried over an LTE network. Verizon, T-Mobile and other carriers are working to move to VoLTE technology in order to migrate away from older, legacy network technologies. VoLTE promises to remove the need for legacy CDMA and GSM networks.

For more:
- see this release
- see this U.S. Cellular earnings story

- see this presentation PDF

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U.S. Cellular to begin VoLTE trials, stays mum on LTE roaming partner