UScellular Progressing with 5G Buildout

UScellular (NYSE: USM) continues to make progress with its 5G deployment. UScellular executives, Mike Dienhart, VP-Engineering and Network Operations and Austin Summerford, Chief of Strategy, Partnerships & Towers, shared with Inside Towers at Connect(X) 2024 an update on the company’s progress.

Mid-band spectrum is a key aspect of the company’s 5G rollout. UScellular acquired mid-band spectrum licenses across its 21-state operating area for C-band in FCC Auction 107 and 3.45 GHz in Auction 110. Dienhart says that UScellular had deployed those mid-band frequencies on 10 percent of its cell sites at the end of 2023. The company is installing both frequencies simultaneously using dual band radios from Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and expects to receive similar units from Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) by late in 3Q24. Dienhart says the company will have mid-band spectrum deployed at 25-30 percent of its cell sites by the end of 2024. 

The company reported 6,995 cell sites in service at the end of 1Q24. It expects some decommissioning of legacy cell sites as it did in 1Q24 and as cell sites are relocated to new locations to take advantage of mid-band propagation benefits.

UScellular continues to look for ways to run its network more efficiently and to lower its operating costs. For now, the network is built on a classical RAN/core model with equipment supplied by Ericsson and Nokia. Nonetheless, UScellular is keeping an eye on new network architecture developments such as virtualized RAN and Open RAN. V-RAN moves RAN functionality into the core where it can serve applications effectively and efficiently, especially if low latency is required.

Open RAN applies more to the RAN equipment at the edge of the network. Dienhart says these new architectures are still “immature.” Open RAN can achieve some operating expense flexibility but for now, there are no new revenue models to support changing out the network. He did say that UScellular’s current network is compatible with Open RAN architecture and that the company continues to explore the benefits, recognizing that there are trade-offs with the implementation and how the network is managed.

UScellular is “densifying” its network to meet the traffic demand on a market-by-market basis. Dienhart points out that UScellular can achieve densification in several ways. It can: add new high bandwidth spectrum like C-band and 3.45 GHz; change 4G cell sites to 5G; or, add more transmitters, either on macrocells or small cells.

Summerford said UScellular has roughly 1,000 small cells deployed, mainly on a town-by-town basis across its footprint which he characterizes as “Portland-to-Portland”, meaning from Oregon to Maine. The company reported 4,382 towers at the end of 1Q24. Summerford says that of the total roughly two-thirds are owned, and one-third is leased.

By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor

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