UScellular’s standalone 5G core supplied by Nokia should be ready by the end of 2022, according to the vendor.

Nokia on Thursday announced that it was tapped by UScellular for the carrier’s standalone (SA) 5G deployment.

A regional provider, UScellular serves 5 million customers and is the nation’s fourth largest facilities-based carrier. With the core network deployment, Nokia is deepening its 5G relationship with UScellular as the vendor already provides 5G radio gear for both low-band and millimeter wave spectrum in the 24 and 28 GHz bands. Nokia said the deployment is expected to be finished by the end of next year.  

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Nokia is providing hardware, software and services for the rollout of SA 5G, which essentially takes the training wheels off of 5G. Most operators, including UScellular, turned on initial 5G service using non-standalone (NSA) mode that still relies on some LTE systems.

In the U.S., T-Mobile is the only carrier that’s rolled out standalone 5G nationwide. Recent testing from Global Wireless Solutions noted that T-Mobile’s 5G was active 35% of the time across the U.S. – and of that, 5G SA showed up 10% of the time.

SA 5G also helps shift to a services-based architecture (SBA) and is a necessary jumping off point to introduce new features like much touted network slicing. Partitioning off and tailoring “slices” of the network that meet requirements of different users or use cases has come up as a potential way for service providers to generate new revenue, but isn’t a commercial reality from carriers at this point.

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“As we continue to expand and enhance our 5G network, we value the innovation and support that Nokia provides to help us deliver a superior wireless experience to our residential and business customers,” said UScellular CTO Mike Irizarry in a statement. “As we deploy 5G SA core, Nokia brings expertise, technology excellence and the right mix of hardware, software and services to meet our requirements for high performance and low latency.”

Nokia President of North America Ed Cholerton in the announcement called out core network function software and cloud infrastructure, saying the deal marks momentum for the vendor in the North American core market.

“We are thrilled to be selected by UScellular to deliver a full 5G experience to its customers,” Cholerton continued. “Our 5G SA core and 5G radios provide not only new capabilities, scale, operational efficiencies, and revenue opportunities, but drive a far better user experience that customers expect.

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The Finnish vendor has been working to turnaround its mobile network business after struggles, particularly in North America where it didn’t win more recent 5G business with Verizon. Samsung and Ericsson both have 5G deals with Verizon, including a more than $8 billion contract awarded this summer to Ericsson.

On the core side Nokia has had success with other operators, such as Dish Network. It’s supplying a containerized SA core software for Dish’s greenfield 5G network build.

Globally, Nokia has deployed more than 250 cloud core networks and over 70 standalone 5G core networks.

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