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UScellular CTO says FWA offering is ‘wildly successful’

NEW ORLEANS — Fixed wireless access (FWA) is a bright spot for UScellular, which is struggling to turn around its mobile business. The regional operator now has close to 100,000 FWA subscribers, according to UScellular EVP and CTO Mike Irizarry.

Speaking at the Wireless Infrastructure Association’s Connect(X) conference here this week, Irizarry called the company’s FWA offering “wildly successful” and said that they do not have any capacity issues. The company currently offers the service over its 5G network that operates on low-band 600 MHz spectrum but will incorporate its mid-band spectrum when it deploys that later this year. The company spent $1.46 billion in 2021 to purchase C-band spectrum licenses that cover 94% of its footprint.

“When we bring on the mid-band spectrum, we will expand our capacity and the breadth of the offering,” he said. Irizarry added that the company expects a “rapid acceleration” of its mid-band spectrum 5G deployment to occur in 2024.

The company said it currently uses customer premises equipment (CPE) from Casa Systems and Inseego with its FWA offering and both of those CPEs are installed inside the premises. However, UScellular is working with vendors to develop a self-installable outdoor antenna unit. Irizarry explained that when the antenna is installed outside, UScellular gets much better coverage and capacity. But outside antenna units can be difficult to install, and some customers don’t like having an antenna unit on their rooftop or outside their home.

However, new technologies are making outdoor units more amenable. For example, Irizarry said that some vendors are experimenting with using artificial intelligence (AI) to orient the internal elements of the antenna, making it easier for consumers to self-install.

Sharing backhaul assets

Network sharing, where two or more wireless operators share network assets, has never been popular in the U.S. because network quality and coverage has always been used as a competitive differentiator. However, Irizarry said UScellular is very open to sharing its network assets with other operators.

The company, which is one of the few mobile operators that still owns a large portfolio of towers, is currently sharing backhaul resources with another operator, which Irizarry declined to reveal. He added that besides backhaul, UScellular is also open to sharing its power resources and even its radio access network (RAN).

“We are open to RAN sharing but it will take another partner to do that,” he said, noting that network sharing doesn’t present any technical issues, but can be challenging when it comes to arranging service level agreements.

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