U.S. Cellular plans LTE test, vendor selection next year

U.S. Cellular is moving ahead on LTE with an eye toward a wide-scale deployment of the next-generation technology in 2012. According to the company's CFO, U.S. Cellular will conduct LTE tests in the first quarter of next year, and will select its lead LTE vendor early next year.

Steven Campbell, U.S. Cellular's executive vice president and CFO, said during the Wells Fargo Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in New York City that the carrier will launch one LTE test market late next year, and that it expects a large-scale LTE deployment to follow in 2012.

The news serves to firm up U.S. Cellular's LTE plans. The carrier is the nation's sixth-largest wireless carrier, and counted around 6.1 million subscribers at the end of the third quarter.

Interestingly, Campbell said U.S. Cellular is open to inking deals with network wholesalers like Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) or LightSquared. Campbell said the company is constantly on the lookout for additional spectrum on which to run its services, and that an agreement with a company like Clearwire or LightSquared could give it additional capacity and reach.

However, Campbell cautioned that U.S. Cellular has no immediate plans on the topic.

"I don't think we're feeling a sense of crisis or urgency," he said.

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S), Time Warner Cable, Comcast and others resell Clearwire's mobile WiMAX services. LightSquared hopes to offer its planned terrestrial-satellite LTE network on a wholesale basis.

U.S. Cellular, a CDMA carrier, joins the likes of Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) in a move to LTE, which sits on the GSM path of network evolution. Verizon Wireless is scheduled to launch LTE services across 38 cities, covering 110 million POPs, sometime this year. Verizon's primary LTE vendors are Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU).

For its part, MetroPCS has launched LTE service in a handful of markets, and has said it will cover roughly 80 percent of its existing CDMA footprint with LTE by the first quarter of next year. MetroPCS has said it will install LTE equipment onto all of its 11,000 cell sites by the end of next year. MetroPCS' primary LTE vendors are Samsung and Ericsson.

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