Fifth-place U.S. telecommunications carrier U.S. Cellular today confirmed that it was one of the bigger winners in the FCC’s recently concluded millimeter wave auctions, successfully securing enough high-band 5G spectrum to cover 98% of its existing subscribers. But the company says it still plans to first roll out 5G on slower, low-band 600MHz spectrum, while deployment of its new millimeter wave holdings will take place at an unspecified future date.
Though the FCC released the names of winning millimeter wave bidders earlier this month, most of the focus was on huge bids from the country’s top three carriers — Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile — which each spent between $505 million and $982 million to augment their nationwide high-band holdings. U.S. Cellular is significantly smaller and is heavily focused on rural users. As of today, it says it has 5 million “connections” — notably not customers or subscribers — in 21 states and will be able to deliver at least 300MHz of high-speed millimeter wave spectrum to 97% of them, thanks to a $256 million purchase of 690 millimeter wave licenses.
Noting that the company bought both 24GHz and 28GHz millimeter wave licenses from the FCC, U.S. Cellular president and CEO Kenneth R. Meyers detailed the company’s strategy, which appears to be similar to one previously announced by larger carriers T-Mobile and Sprint pursuant to their merger.
Our 5G network strategy envisions the use of a variety of spectrum bands over time. Our initial 5G deployment will be on our 600MHz spectrum to provide enhanced broadband speed and capacity over our entire footprint with the expectation that we will be able to augment it with mid and high band spectrum over time as the technology and use cases continue to evolve … [W]e can now cover most of our subscribers with at least 300MHz of millimeter wave licenses which will enable U.S. Cellular to provide its customers with the leading edge capabilities 5G is promising.
Consequently, U.S. Cellular still faces the challenge of procuring handsets compatible with a 600MHz 5G network. Verizon and AT&T are both offering millimeter wave-specific versions of the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, while Sprint is now selling two 5G devices with mid-band 2.5GHz frequency support. No 600MHz 5G devices have officially been announced by either T-Mobile or U.S. Cellular, though both carriers have promised to launch some 5G services in select markets by the end of this year.