UScellular eyes FWA for first 5G SA use case – FierceWireless

2 minutes, 20 seconds Read
  • Regional carrier UScellular boasts a 5G standalone (SA) core

  • The first consumers on the SA core are expected to be FWA consumers

  • UScellular remained mum on its sale status

CONNECT (X) ATLANTA — UScellular has deployed a 5G standalone (SA) core and it’s conducting trials with employees, but it’s not yet ready to roll out commercially to consumers, a key operator executive told Fierce.

“I expect that we will put customers – small numbers at first – on it within the next two months,” said Michael Dienhart, VP of Engineering and Network Operations at UScellular, on the sidelines of Connect (X). “By the end of the second quarter we will have some number of customers on it.”

Fixed wireless access (FWA) likely will be the first application on the SA network. “I think the technology is still climbing the maturity curve,” he said, explaining that the use case for FWA data is a little simpler than it is for mobile voice and data.

That’s not to say that mobile voice service can’t be done, but it’s easier to start with data. “It’s a little bit less taxing from an operational and configuration perspective,” he said. “I can manage it easier. I view it as less complex.”

The expectation is to start small and over time, it will grow as part of the network slicing that 5G SA enables. In fact, the first person on the SA network may or may not even know they’re on it.   

“As a user, I wouldn’t know if I was on SA core or not,” he said. “The standalone core is more economical for me and it also gives me a finer grain of control over the experience.”

Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung all supply radios for UScellular. Nokia and Ericsson supply the core network and for the SA core, it’s all Nokia.

VoNR still needs work 

UScellular has not deployed Voice over New Radio (VoNR), or voice services based on 5G technology, because it’s not as good at Voice over LTE, or VoLTE, and until it’s equal or better than VoLTE, Dienhart said he’s not going to offer it to consumers.

“It’s just not worth it for the customer experience,” he said. That said, he’s optimistic that the industry will find ways to improve VoNR. “It’s just not ready yet.”

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that T-Mobile and Verizon were in talks to carve up UScellular, which has been exploring a sale for more than six months. While that provided plenty of fodder for Connect (X) attendees to talk about, a UScellular spokesperson declined Wednesday to comment on what’s happening with that.

Until a deal is sealed, it’s full court ahead for UScellular and its network team.

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