Did US Cellular make the right move in waiting for an LTE iPhone?

Evan Selleck
Contributing Editor from Arizona
Published: December 6, 2011

Ah, the iPhone. We’ve been watching the device since its inception. We’ve watched other manufacturers be sued because their products might look too much like the iPhone. We’ve seen people stand in line to get it. And we’ve heard about the millions of devices sold at launch. The iPhone is indeed a beast to be reckoned with, a driving force in the mobile market, and a device to be sought after. (Unless you’re not a fan, then obviously you could care less.) But, with all that boosting the iPhone into the lime light for many years, what happens when a regional carrier says your device isn’t cutting edge enough to warrant a release on their network?

When Apple unveiled the iPhone 4S, the result wasn’t all that fantastic. At least, not in the media. Whether or not the hype got the better of the device’s actual specs is irrelevant at this point – the phone is out, and it sold a ridiculous amount of devices. With that being said, I don’t think the iPhone has necessarily lost its speed, and it certainly hasn’t lost its glowing façade within the general consumer base. It’s still a device that people want, even if it was just a “minor” update over the iPhone 4, and is lacking true 4G-connectivity.

But it doesn’t look like every wireless carrier out there is fighting to get their subscribers the latest iPhone or any iPhone at this point in time. Ted Carlson, the CEO of regional carrier US Cellular’s parent company TDS, has gone on the record at the recent UBS Global Media and Communications Conference, saying that while the company will never say never on an iPhone launch, they are more than happy to wait. Here’s the direct quote:

"We're never going to say never about the iPhone," Carlson said. "The iPhone for us would need to be at the cutting edge of where we're going, and then there might be an opportunity to consider it."

We’ve watched since the launch of the original iPhone as rumors, speculation and insider talk suggested that wireless carriers like Verizon and Sprint were doing pretty much whatever they could to get the iPhone on their respective networks. We know it finally worked out with the iPhone 4 launching on Verizon, and the iPhone 4S finally coming to Sprint (while also launching on AT&T’s and Verizon’s networks). And now we’ve got the regional carrier US Cellular turning the current iteration of the iPhone down? Wow.

The truth is, the carrier’s size probably doesn’t really matter, but I do find it interesting. When we look at Verizon and Sprint (and AT&T at the start) battling to get their hands on the device that so many people want, these are the big names in the mobile industry here in the States. While US Cellular is popular within its region, it isn’t a household name all over the country. And Apple is a household name, with no stretch of the imagination needed. The fact that Carlson is going as far as to say that the iPhone needs to be cutting edge, especially when referencing US Cellular’s network, seems pretty important to me. And no, not because it means that the iPhone is losing its grip on the market (because it isn’t), but strictly because Carlson is thinking about his network first and foremost, while at the same time making sure to provide a top-notch environment for the subscribers.

US Cellular’s goal of covering 25 percent of its current regional footprint in LTE by the year’s end is a big plan, and it’s a plan that obviously needs to be stuck with. People want faster speeds, and obviously with US Cellular focusing on that aspect of their network, they don’t think it’s worth the time or investment to launch an iPhone that’s not cutting edge. That, to the point, could be considered “out of date” by their standards of looking to the future. They will wait for an LTE-based iPhone before they launch one on their network. That’s a pretty impressive stance.

But was it the right move? Obviously people want the iPhone 4S, even if it doesn’t have LTE-connectivity. Would it really have been a bad thing for US Cellular to launch the current version of the iPhone, and launch the LTE-based device that is supposed to be coming out next year? Let me know what you think.

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