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Apple devices coming to regional carrier U.S. Cellular this year

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Apple’s(s AAPL) mobile footprint in the U.S. is about to expand again. On Friday, regional carrier U.S. Cellular announced it will begin offering “Apple products” before the end of 2013. The carrier made the announcement with the publication of its first quarter earnings results. “Apple products” will obviously include the iPhone, but it could mean U.S. Cellular will offer LTE service for iPads as well.

From the earnings release:

“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.”

This is not a case of Apple finally bestowing the iPhone on the carrier. It’s the opposite: Apple has made a smartphone that U.S. Cellular wanted to sell. You may remember the CEO of the carrier’s parent company, TDS, saying in late 2011 that he’d offer the iPhone when Apple made a more “cutting edge” phone — in other words, he was waiting for LTE.

LTE is a big priority for the carrier: U.S. Cellular said Friday it will bring LTE to 87 percent of its existing customers this year. But smartphones in general are where it can improve. Currently, less than half — about 43 percent — of its subscribers have a smartphone. That means there’s plenty of built-in demand for customers looking to upgrade to one for the first time.

U.S. Cellular customers may certainly go for the iPhone 5, which is Apple’s LTE phone, but the cheaper iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S have been proving especially attractive to late smartphone adopters.