U.S. Cellular launching LTE in March with 2 Samsung gadgets

Soon consumers in smaller towns and cities across the U.S. will have access to their first LTE network as U.S. Cellular(s USM) ramps ups its commercial 4G service. The regional CDMA operator will start selling two Samsung devices — the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in March and the Galaxy S Aviator smartphone in April — making the odd move of launching a connected tablet before it releases its first 4G phone.

The network will go live in several small communities in Iowa, Wisconsin, Maine, North Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma, as well as in some of U.S. Cellular’s bigger markets such as Milwaukee, Madison and Racine, Wis.; Des Moines, Iowa; Portland, Maine; and Greenville, N.C. (You can see full coverage maps here.) U.S. Cellular said the launch will cover 25 percent of its CDMA footprint, which currently serves 6.1 million customers.

The big exception on that list is Chicago, the carrier’s largest market and headquarters. When U.S. Cellular and its spectrum partner King Street Wireless bought their 700 MHz 4G licenses at auction in 2008, they failed to win a key Chicago license, leaving a big hole in the operator’s 4G footprint. They appear to be working to rectifying that situation though. U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) are currently negotiating a spectrum swap that could put a critical 700 MHz Windy City license in regional operator’s hands.

U.S. Cellular said in many of its smaller launch markets, customers will see their first LTE service, though Verizon’s juggernaut 4G rollout has already beaten the carrier to many of the bigger towns like Milwaukee, Des Moines and Greenville. U.S. Cellular also didn’t reveal any details on how it would price the service, though its current 3G plans offer a hint. U.S. Cellular sells a 5 GB stand-alone tablet plan for $55 a month, and it bundles 5 GB in with its smartphone voice and SMS plans for about $40 a month.