U.S. Cellular launches prepaid Android phones

U.S. Cellular is the latest carrier to bring smartphones to its prepaid subscribers. 

U.S. Cellular will offer the LG Optimus U, left, and the LG Apex to its prepaid subscribers.The regional carrier launched the LG Optimus U for $199.99 for prepaid subscribers and the LG Apex for $249.99 for prepaid customers (the phones are $29.99 and $49.99, respectively, when paired with a two-year contract and after an $80 mail-in rebate). U.S. Cellular also unveiled new prepaid data plans to go with the gadgets: Customers can choose unlimited messaging, 2 GB of data and 450 voice minutes for $60 per month and can upgrade that with unlimited voice for $70. Customers who want to just talk and text can get unlimited minutes and messaging for $50.

U.S. Cellular lost 31,000 net subscribers in the fourth quarter, compared with net subscriber additions of 10,000 in the year-ago period. However, the carrier has argued there is room for greater smartphone penetration this year.

With its new plans, U.S. Cellular joins a growing roster of carriers pushing smartphones to prepaid subscribers, who have historically lacked access to the hottest handsets. AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) will launch the Android-powered LG Thrive for $179.99 on April 17 for its GoPhone prepaid customers. Separately, Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) Boost Mobile prepaid brand recently launched its first CDMA Android smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Prevail.

All of the new prepaid smartphone launches put pressure on flat-rate carriers MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS) and Cricket provider Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP), which began increasing the number of smartphones in their lineups last fall. Both flat-rate providers intend to make smartphones a centerpiece of their offerings this year.      

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