Summary:

U.S. Cellular has begun selling its first 4G device, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, across its coverage area, though LTE speeds will be limited initially to parts of six states. The data plans aren’t cheap, but it’s providing the first 4G option for many small towns.

U.S. Cellular Tab 10.1

Updated. The country’s fifth LTE network just went live. On Thursday, U.S. Cellular began selling its first 4G device, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, across its regional coverage area, though LTE  speeds will be limited initially to smaller markets in Iowa, Maine, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Wisconsin (you can find detailed coverage maps here). The carrier plans to expand 4G coverage to nine more states in the second half of the year to cover just over half of its operating territory — though it will be a while before it appears in U.S. Cellular’s flagship city Chicago.

U.S. Cellular is offering two monthly data plans and they’re both on the expensive side: $15 for 200 MB and $55 for 5 GB without two-year contracts. The overage charges are a even more steep: 25 cents per MB. That works out to $250 per gigabyte, while most major operators are charging only $10 per gigabyte. U.S. Cellular is also imposing a $200 overage cap, preventing customers from racking up too many extra data charges.

Pricing on the tablet itself varies depending on where you are. U.S. Cellular is selling the Tab 10.1 for $100 cheaper in markets where it will has LTE today or will have LTE by the end of the year. So if you live in Greenville, N.C., or Lawson, Okla., you can buy the device for $499, but if you’re in Chicago or any other market not scheduled for 4G in 2012, it costs $599. Samsung is offering a $100 rebate on both devices, but since U.S. Cellular isn’t doing contracts, there is no further subsidy. Update: While the tablets will, in fact, be subject to two-year contracts, U.S. Cellular will also sell an unsubsidized version of the Tab for $799 throughout it’s territory for customers who want month-to-month plans.

U.S. Cellular said the $100 discount in 4G markets is a limited time promotion. It’s trying to promote its new LTE service, but U.S. Cellular may also have an larger strategic motive. It’s a lot cheaper to deliver data over LTE than over its CDMA 3G networks, but it’s charging the same rates for both plans, so the more customers using the tablet on 4G the better.

As for speeds, don’t expect the breathtaking bandwidth we have witnessed over Verizon Wireless and AT&Ts’ new networks. U.S. Cellular only has half the 4G spectrum of its bigger counterparts, so it’s marketing average speeds of 3-6 Mbps. If Verizon and AT&T’s networks are any indication though, customers will often experience much faster connectivity than what U.S. Cellular is advertising. Verizon markets its LTE network as averaging 5-12 Mbps, but in dense markets like New York City, 4G customers have clocked connections well over 60 Mbps.

U.S. Cellular’s first smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S Aviator, is scheduled to go on sale in April, and a U.S. Cellular spokesman confirmed the launch is on track. Though the carrier hasn’t specified the exact cities and towns, in the latter half of the year it’s expanding into markets in Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia. If you’re in U.S. Cellular’s coverage area and want to know if your town is on the LTE list, you can try a simple trick: Enter your zip code into the Tab 10.1 purchase page. If the tablet comes up with a $499 price, you’re area is scheduled for LTE. If it’s $599 you’re out of luck – at least this year.

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