U.S. Cellular gives free Apple Watch service to 'total' plan customers

The Apple Watch Series 3 includes built-in cellular capabilities. (Apple)

U.S. Cellular, the nation’s fifth largest wireless operator, is looking to juice sales of its "total" plans by throwing in service for the Apple Watch Series 3 for free, at least for a “limited time.” The carrier wouldn't provide an end date for the promotion.

The offer significantly undercuts similar offerings by the nation’s larger, nationwide wireless operators. Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint are generally offering service on the cellular-capable Apple Watch for $10 per month, though typically after a one- or three-month period of free service.

Moreover, U.S. Cellular said that customers who do not subscribe to its "total" plans, which include an unlimited option starting at $40, can purchase service for the Apple Watch for $4.99 per month.

“We are thrilled to launch Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS + Cellular) with an incredible offer for new and current customers,” Mark Vitale, senior director of device strategy and management at U.S. Cellular, said in a release. “This addition to our Apple line-up provides our customers with added flexibility to use their Apple devices wherever they want on our fast, award-winning network.”

Although U.S. Cellular is entering the Apple Watch game relatively late—the device went on sale through nationwide operators late last year—the regional carrier is clearly hoping to cash in on a potentially lucrative new business. Specifically, BayStreet Research found that the nation’s wireless network operators collectively are selling tens of thousands of Apple Watch devices every month, and the vast majority of those sales include a new line of wireless service. (Apple offers both cellular and noncellular Apple Watch options, though wireless carriers in their retail channels generally only push the cellular version.)

The growth of the smartwatch opportunity is key for the nation’s wireless carriers, considering they generally charge an extra $10 a month for Apple Watch cellular service. And though many carriers are offering a free month or three of service for the gadgets, BayStreet found that, at least so far, most Apple Watch customers are electing to pay the $10 per month to keep their watches activated.

Thus, the Apple Watch could pave the way for U.S. Cellular and others to obtain incremental revenues by providing services to consumer devices beyond smartphones.

Article updated June 22 to clarify headline.