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Summary:

Sprint now owns U.S. Cellular’s spectrum in St. Louis and Chicago and it’s anxious to use it in its networks. It’s giving hundreds of thousands U.S. Cellular customers two to five months to switch.

U.S. Cellular customers in St. Louis and Chicago don’t have switch over to a new carrier immediately, but it’s only a matter of time before their phones go dead. Sprint on Wednesday said it is setting a deadline of Oct. 31 to shut down U.S. Cellular’s towers in St. Louis. Chicagoans will get a few months reprieve: The network is scheduled to go dark in the Windy City on Jan. 31.

In May, Sprint closed its acquisition of U.S. Cellular’s spectrum in its two largest markets — St. Louis and Chicago — putting 420,000 subscribers in a kind of limbo. Sprint stated its intentions to replace U.S. Cellular’s aging CDMA gear with its new Network Vision architecture, but the carriers have kept the old networks on life support, giving customers time to transition over to Sprint or another carrier.

Sprint said that the majority of those subscribers had either made the jump to Sprint or another carrier. At the end of July, 173,000 subscribers remained connected to U.S. Cellular systems in the two cities.

As we reported in May, Sprint is offering a bunch of incentives to lure them over to its CDMA and LTE networks, but as the abundance of outraged comments on GigaOM show, a lot of U.S. Cellular customers aren’t happy with their forced ejection.

If Sprint’s rapid decommissioning of the Nextel iDEN network in June was any indication, the remaining U.S. Cellular customers in Chicago and St. Louis will lose service almost immediately when their respective deadlines hit. They risk losing their phone numbers as well, unless they port them over to Sprint or another carrier before the sunset dates arrive.

Sprint said affected customers can go to a special website set up for the transition, where they can see the device and service discounts its offering. Customers can also call 800-216-7023 to talk to a customer service rep about the same offers. For those wanting to bypass Sprint’s transition offers, though, they need to contact their new carrier to set up new service.

I should note here that U.S. Cellular is not shutting down completely. While its networks in metropolitan St. Louis and Chicago markets will go dark, it is still operating in all of its other cities, towns and rural areas. With increasing pressure from the big carriers in the big cities, U.S. Cellular is entrenching its core regional markets.

Update: At 11 AM PT on Thursday this post was updated with subscriber numbers on the affected U.S. Cellular networks.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Rudy Balasko

  1. Didn’t US Cellular also recently sell a bunch of their spectrum to T-Mobile in the same area?

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