U.S. Cellular ramps up its 5G rollout efforts, taking a page from T-Mobile's book

U.S. Cellular ramps up its 5G rollout efforts, taking a page from T-Mobile's book
U.S. Cellular is often overlooked in conversations about and evaluations of the nation's largest mobile network operators, but with around 5 million customers under its belt across 21 states as of the end of Q1 2020, the 1983-founded company can definitely be considered a relatively major player in the American wireless industry, especially in the wake of Sprint's untimely and entirely predictable death.

As pointed out by Fierce Wireless, USC is now the nation's fourth largest "infrastructure-based" wireless carrier, at least until Dish fulfills all those promises made to the Department of Justice, delivering on its hugely ambitious goal of building a blazing fast and cost-effective 5G network from scratch.

Spreading the low-band 5G love

You'll be excused if you had no idea U.S. Cellular started its move away from outdated 4G LTE technology a little while back in parts of Wisconsin and Iowa, but the carrier is now aggressively vying for your attention with an impending expansion of the improved cellular signal to 11 additional states.

The list includes California, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and West Virginia, although not everyone will get 5G access at once, and at least for the time being, there are no individual rollout dates to share for any of these places.

All we know is that U.S. Cellular is finally ready to commit to activating 5G service across these states "soon" using dedicated 600 MHz spectrum. That means there will be no need for something called dynamic spectrum sharing, which is currently at the core of Verizon's low-band 5G deployment strategy, posing however a number of technical challenges that allowed T-Mobile to get a big early lead in terms of availability.

While we're on the subject, we should highlight that U.S. Cellular is not making any specific 5G coverage promises yet, merely claiming that traffic and usage patterns will determine the focus of the operator's deployments, with dense urban areas prioritized but "small and medium towns" also considered important.

Of course, the ability to cover a lot of ground with minimal resources is the main advantage of the low-band 600 MHz spectrum. On the not so bright side of things, you shouldn't exactly expect earth-shattering speed upgrades, although those will also come to U.S. Cellular's network... eventually.

The future is all about the layer cake

The wireless service provider plans to add mmWave capabilities with Nokia's help next year in an attempt to challenge Verizon's absolutely insane download numbers. But this high-band technology has a major flaw too, as it cannot penetrate most obstacles (including walls and trees), delivering a blazing fast cellular signal only in the near vicinity of a mmWave tower.

Like T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular envisions its 5G network as a perfect cake with three layers, but the middle and arguably most important level of this metaphor is proving difficult to implement for essentially anyone that's not Magenta. That's because Sprint used to own the largest chunk of usable mid-band spectrum in the US, while everyone else is currently engaged in a critical auction that may determine who can keep up with T-Mo in the battle for striking the ideal balance between 5G speed and availability.

Until U.S. Cellular can roll out a mid and high-band signal, those grounded in the present should be happy to hear an "LTE Advanced" modernization is also taking place. Although that doesn't sound as meaningful or as buzzworthy as everything happening in the 5G field, it's actually something that most users will be able to experience out in the real world fairly soon.

In case you're wondering, most mobile devices currently or recently sold by U.S. Cellular are LTE Advanced-capable, with the LG V60 ThinQ, Samsung Galaxy S20 lineup, and Galaxy A71 composing the operator's 5G-enabled smartphone roster at the time of this writing.

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