U.S. Cellular, other small U.S. operators continue to lag behind

When Verizon Wireless' $28.1 billion acquisition of Alltel closes, there will be no U.S. wireless networks with between 7 million and 30 million customers, and the gap between small operators and large behemoths will grow wider, according to a report by the Mobile World Briefing.

There are currently seven networks with fewer than 7 million subscribers but greater than 250,000, although if AT&T's plan to buy Centennial gains regulatory approval, there will only be six. They include Qwest, Ntelos, U.S. Cellular, Leap, MetroPCS and Cincinnati Bell. During the third quarter, four out of the seven experienced net declines in subscriber growth, with Qwest experiencing the largest drop. Qwest lost 45,000 subscribers in the quarter, taking its base down to 770,000, its lowest base since the third quarter of 2005.

Leap and MetroPCS remain the fastest-growing small operators, with annual growth rates of 27.6 percent and 32.3 percent respectively. However, the annual growth rate for the seven combined was 13.1 percent, compared to 15.9 percent for T-Mobile USA, 14.0 percent for AT&T Mobility, 11.2 percent for Verizon and -6.3 percent for Sprint Nextel.

When the Verizon-Alltel deal closes it will create company with more than 83 million subscribers. AT&T is the second largest, with nearly 75 million subscribers.

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