U.S. Cellular May Have Game Changer with iPhone Launch

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United States Cellular Corp. (NYSE: USM) is the “forgotten about” cellular carrier as it is not all over the country but a small player with 5.7 million customers in 26 states, compared to the vast footprints of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). Now, U.S. Cellular will start selling the Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone and iPad later this year.

U.S. Cellular disclosed that it will start selling Apple products along with its corporate earnings report on Friday. In fact, this was the first tag line in its press release summary. As you will see, U.S. Cellular actually needs the iPhone to boost its business.

The company has declining sales and declining income. Revenues fell to $996.3 million from $1.02 billion a year ago. Earnings fell to $4.9 million from $62.5 million. That translates to a per-share drop to only $0.06 EPS from $0.73 a year ago.

U.S. Cellular is even small compared to Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE: S), although it is involved in selling its Chicago, St. Louis, central Illinois and three other markets to Sprint Nextel for $480 million. At the time that deal was disclosed in late 2012, it covered its PCS Spectrum and almost 600,000 customers.

It only makes sense that the iPhone is coming to U.S. Cellular. The company said that it is bringing 4G LTE to 87% of its customers in 2013 and also is increasing its network capacity. 4G LTE smartphones were 76% of smartphones sold in the quarter in its core markets, while smartphones overall were 62% of devices sold.

The company said:

We have a number of strategies in progress to increase loyalty and attract more customers, including our announcement today that we will begin offering Apple products later this year. By further strengthening our device portfolio, we’ll give consumers another great reason to switch to U.S. Cellular, and enable our existing customers to choose from an even wider variety of iconic smartphones, and enjoy the outstanding U.S. Cellular customer experiences they deserve. Our smartphone penetration is currently 43 percent of core market customers and growing quickly. We believe there will be strong, ongoing demand for smartphones and data products and services from our customers, and we have significant room for growth in this area.

Our only question is how much it cost U.S. Cellular to bring the iPhone. Apparently, a lot. Shares are down 2% to $37.70, against a 52-week range of $33.16 to $41.54. U.S. Cellular’s market cap is $3.15 billion, but it is one of the few established telecom players that pays no dividend.

We would point out that the company also has a partnership with Verizon Wireless covering parts of the New York market. One thing to note is that this company has been a takeover candidate in the past. Nothing ever came of those rumors.