When Mike Dienhart joined UScellular in 2003, it was just making the transition from a roaming-centric company to one with a more diversified portfolio.
Flash forward a couple decades, and roaming is a mere footnote in UScellular’s earnings reports. Big U.S. carriers aren’t as reliant on rural and regional carriers for roaming and UScellular is finding revenues elsewhere, although roaming remains central to the customer experience.
Although much has changed over the years, Dienhart’s No. 1 priority remains the customer experience. At the start of 2023, he started a new position as VP of engineering and network operations. Enabling new technologies and capabilities is an everyday part of the job.
“Our No. 1 priority has to be the customer experience, plain and simple,” he said. “It has to be reliability” and availability of the services they depend on. “That’s the product – that it works every time someone uses their phone.”
One very new technology is voice services delivered via 5G, aka Voice over New Radio (VoNR). Making standalone (SA) 5G voice services work seamlessly has been a challenge for the industry at large. T-Mobile was the first to launch VoNR, and it did so only in limited areas of two markets, Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2022.
At UScellular, they’re in no rush to roll out 5G voice. Dienhart said 5G voice service is really cool for a technologist, but not so much for a consumer.
Sure, voice over 5G provides benefits for the operator, but if UScellular were to deploy it today, it would come at the cost of the customer experience. Currently, coverage and overall quality of voices services on 5G are worse, “and we know that – we’re testing it,” he said.
The industry had a decade to make VoLTE work and finesse its performance, investing billions. 5G Voice over NR is an early stage technology and the industry simply hasn’t had time to perfect it – and that includes vendors and operators alike, he said.
When will UScellular offer 5G voice? “We will absolutely deploy it when we can deliver an equal or better customer experience” than what it can offer today with VoLTE. He estimates that’s “two-ish years away,” he said.
Shifting from mmWave to mid-band
One area where UScellular has led the way is deploying millimeter wave (mmWave) in rural areas. For many years, mmWave was considered best suited for dense urban areas due to its propagation characteristics. But UScellular worked with partners like Nokia, Ericsson and Qualcomm to prove how distance and speeds can be achieved with mmWave in rural areas.
However, like others in the industry, UScellular shifted its 5G priorities from mmWave to mid-band as that spectrum started to become available. That doesn’t mean mmWave is dead. “I thoroughly expect we’ll come back to millimeter wave. Millimeter wave is a fantastic capacity solution,” Dienhart said.
In terms of UScellular’s mid-band 3.45 GHz and C-band 3.7 GHz deployments, it’s on track for those and expects to make use of it for fixed wireless access (FWA) as well as mobility customers. The 3.45 GHz spectrum probably will be available by the middle to late part of this year, with the C-band coming available in December.
That spectrum will make a huge difference for consumers in rural America, he said.
UScellular’s current FWA-based Home Internet service uses 4G, 5G or 5G millimeter wave depending on the location.
As of the end of the third quarter of 2022, UScellular had 66,000 customers using its fixed wireless product, up 40% compared to the prior year and 16% from the prior quarter. Some of that is 5G, where UScellular has upgraded its network, but a lot of it is LTE, going up against DSL and satellite.
Fiber and fixed wireless
UScellular plans to draw on various government funding programs to help expand its FWA footprint, including the NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.
It’s a lot more feasible and makes for an easier economic case to deploy fixed wireless than to roll out fiber, Dienhart said. And it’s not an either/or when it comes to fiber and wireless, he added.
“I think both have to get funding,” he said. “We can’t provide our service without fiber service, but there’s no reason to try to drag fiber to every single house and it’s the least efficient use of infrastructure funding. The true rational answer, in my view, is essentially a partnership between fiber companies serving wireless distribution points, and together we can actually provide fantastic service to rural America.”
A lot of the success of that kind of model depends on state agencies that are doling out funds, and “part of our job is to educate” them, he said.
Reflecting on his career, Dienhart said he spent about 16 years in the network and technology side of the business, out in the field and in corporate settings. Then he spent about four years working in the information system part of the business.
Most recently, he was VP of supply chain, which encompassed everything from retail devices to network hardware. “I’ve had the opportunity to gain a real appreciation for how the company works as a unit,” as opposed to individual silos, he said. “I’ve had a fantastic journey.”