UScellular (NYSE: USM) owned and operated 4,356 towers across 23 states in the Midwest, New England, parts of the South, and the Pacific Northwest, at the end of 3Q23. In the past 12 months, the company added 27 towers and recently won an award from the Missouri Cell Towers Grant Program to build 11 new towers by 2025 in designated Missouri counties, Inside Towers reported.
Tower leasing revenues grew in the quarter to $25.4 million year-over-year. While USM is the anchor tenant, its towers support 2,406 colocations, of which 88 percent of the leasing revenue comes from the Big 3 MNOs – Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, AT&T Mobility – and the balance from other wireless service providers. The company’s tower tenancy ratio grew one percent YoY to 1.54. USM points out that about 30 percent of its towers do not have a competing tower within a two-mile radius, and sees potential for more colocations.
The company’s overall performance was not as positive. Wireless service revenues for 3Q23 declined to $762 million, down two percent YoY, a result of net losses. Postpaid handset net additions were down 16,000 and net prepaid additions decreased 2,000, largely due to competition from the established MNOs and MVNOs. At the end of 3Q23, the company reported 4.6 million postpaid and prepaid mobile subscribers, down from 4.7 million at the end of 3Q22. USM remains the largest regional MNO in the U.S. and is one of the last MNOs to still operate its own towers, according to Inside Towers Intelligence.
Despite the losses, postpaid ARPU increased to $51.11 from $50.21 a year ago. The company claims this growth was partially due to increased device protection revenues, and greater customer adoption of higher value tier plans. At the end of the quarter, USM had 46 percent of its postpaid handset customers on higher tier plans.
USM says that mid-band deployments will become more significant, now that C-band spectrum has been cleared by incumbent satellite operators several months earlier than expected. The company won 254 C-band licenses in 99 PEAs for $1.3 billion in FCC Auction 107, and 380 licenses in 104 PEAs for $580 million of 3.45 GHz licenses in Auction 110, Inside Towers reported.
Nokia (NYSE: NOK) and Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) are supplying USM with 3.45 GHz/C-band dual-band radios to simplify the 5G mid-band spectrum rollout.
USM has been upgrading a number of its 6,973 total cell sites in anticipation of the mid-band spectrum clearance. By the end of 2024, the company expects about 50 percent of its mobile data traffic will be carried on mid-band equipped sites. The company previously indicated it expects to cover nearly three million households in its operating footprint with 5G mid-band by the end of 2024, Inside Towers reported.
Fixed wireless access has been a bright spot for the company. It reported 106,000 FWA subscribers at the end of 3Q23, up 58 percent from 67,000 a year ago. FWA service revenues were up 35 percent YoY. Early FWA deployments relied on low-band 600 MHz spectrum. USM expects strong FWA subscriber growth to continue with a competitive 300 Mbps FWA offering where mid-band spectrum is deployed.
Of note, the company will be shutting down its 3G CDMA network at the beginning of 2024. It says there are less than 42,000 customers left on that network, down from 386,000 just 18 months ago. It intends to refarm 850 MHz and 1900 MHz spectrum used for 3G to support its 4G LTE network.
The company maintained full-year midpoint guidance for wireless service revenues of $3,050 million and capex of $750 million, down two percent and nine percent, respectively, compared to full-year 2022.
By John Celentano, Inside Towers Business Editor