• U.S. Cellular’s rapid increase in capacity, thanks to new spectrum access, highlights the importance of low-touch deployment and software in today’s radio networks.
• The likely extension of the ongoing lockdown raises the chances that current spectrum lending programs will need to be extended.
When it comes to COVID-19, telecommunications equipment vendors are somewhat at the mercy of forces beyond their control. In the U.S. in particular, reports of crew shortages available for tower climbs are abundant. However, with a boost from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), vendors are helping operators gain additional capacity by temporarily gaining access to new spectrum bands.
Of course it helps that U.S. Cellular holds a majority stake in Advantage Spectrum, the entity that owns the spectrum in question; however, this is not the only COVID-19-related spectrum leasing deal out there. For example, the FCC has also authorized T-Mobile to augment capacity utilizing 600 MHz spectrum from DISH Network, Comcast, and a host of other spectrum owners.
Of course, gaining access to new spectrum is nice but ultimately of limited value if it requires truck rolls and tower climbs while many deployment crews are being forced to stay at home. The good news in this area is that the current generation of cellular radio sites is far less dependent on humans than previous generations. In the case of U.S. Cellular in the Northwest U.S., Nokia was able to remotely integrate the new spectrum capacity into 250 Airscale radio units via a relatively simple software update, effectively sidestepping any potential shortage of available human installers and generating a very quick capacity boost.
The ability to integrate new spectrum bands quickly is also confirmed by the rapid increase in capacity seen with U.S. Cellular’s spectrum borrowing. Opensignal, which measures network quality using data it collects from users smartphones, reported earlier in April that T-Mobile took less than three days to start deploying the additional spectrum it received from Dish and other companies; users saw a 2x increase in LTE speeds as a result. Simply put, such an instantaneous improvement would have been unthinkable five years ago.
The question sure to be emerging shortly is – with the current lockdown, or some form of it, increasingly likely to extend into the summer and possibly beyond, what happens when the current two-month spectrum lease authorizations expire? The FCC will need to resolve that in the coming weeks.