U.S. Cellular to expand LTE network cover 98% of its customers by end of 2015

U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) plans to cover essentially its entire customer base with LTE by the end of the year, hoping that expanded access to faster mobile broadband speeds will help its subscriber numbers and churn.

The regional carrier said it plans to have 98 percent of its customers covered with LTE by the end of 2015, up from 94 percent today. U.S. Cellular said it will be adding more than 600 LTE cell sites to its network in 2015 and expanding existing LTE service in 10 states.

According to the carrier, the new network expansion will bring additional LTE service to areas in California, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. The company said more than 2,000 new cities and towns will receive LTE.

Through a partnership with King Street Wireless, U.S. Cellular has been expanding its LTE network via its 700 MHz A Block spectrum. As of the end of the fourth quarter, 61 percent of the company's postpaid customers had an LTE-capable device and 78 percent of the company's data traffic was running on its LTE network.

U.S. Cellular was the fifth-largest bidder in the FCC's recent AWS-3 spectrum auction, at $338.3 million in gross bids. On the company's fourth-quarter earnings conference call, U.S. Cellular CEO Ken Meyers said it was still "premature" to talk about the carrier's plans for the spectrum it won, but he said that the company secured 5x5 MHz blocks of spectrum in more than 90 percent of its operating markets. He said those licenses, when combined with the rest of the carrier's spectrum portfolio, puts the company in a "pretty good position" in terms of spectrum. He said the AWS-3 spectrum will help the company in some markets in which it is facing capacity constraints. However, Meyers acknowledged it will be "at least a year" before commercial equipment in the AWS-3 band comes to market.

It's unclear when U.S. Cellular might launch carrier aggregation, as larger carriers have done. U.S. Cellular spokeswoman Katie Frey said the company plans to deploy carrier aggregation later this year, using low abnd and high band spectrum. The company is likely going to agrgegate its 700 MHz spectrum with its 1900 MHz PCS spectrum. 

Meyers said in January that the company would begin testing Voice over LTE service with users in a handful of markets this year. Frey said that the carrier is "currently conducting VoLTE trials and we look forward to bringing this technology to our customers," bur declined to say when it will be commercially available.

The carrier has also said it is working on signing LTE roaming deals, though it hasn't made any official announcements on that topic yet.

U.S. Cellular was the nation's fifth-largest wireless network operator in the fourth quarter, according to Strategy Analytics.

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Article updated April 2 with a comment from U.S. Cellular that the carrier will, in fact, be deploying carrier aggregation later in 2015.