Confirmed: U.S. Cellular will be selling iPhones later this year

iPhone 5 (three-up, profile, front, back, black and white)

U.S. Cellular is the nation’s sixth-largest wireless carrier, behind Verizon Wireless, AT&T Mobility, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS. Although Apple’s iPhone is now available on all four major U.S. telcos and a number of regional carriers, U.S. Cellular doesn’t offer the iconic smartphone.

It was reported last November that U.S. Cellular actually turned down the iPhone due to Apple’s terms described as “unacceptable from a risk and profitability standpoint.” In a seeming change of heart, the company in a Friday news release announcing first-quarter earnings confirmed it will start carrying unspecified Apple products later this year.

UPDATE: a company spokesperson confirmed to Engadget that by “Apple products” they meant iPhones…

Although the media release makes no mention of the iPhone, U.S. Cellular president and CEO Mary N. Dillon was quoted as saying:

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.

While Dillon refrained from mentioning the Apple smartphone, he went on saying that by “further strengthening our device portfolio, we’ll give consumers another great reason to switch to U.S. Cellular.”

Engadget reached out to U.S. Cellular and received the following clarification:

U.S. Cellular will be selling iPhone products later this year. We don’t have any additional information at this time.

To me, that sounds a lot like they’ll be offering the iPhone soon. The carrier has a smartphone penetration of 43 percent of core market customers, “and growing quickly.”

US Cellular’s parent company TDS last December commented on the decision to turn down Apple’s handset:

We’re never going to say never about the iPhone. The iPhone for us would need to be at the cutting edge of where we’re going, and then there might be an opportunity to consider it.

U.S. Cellular has its headquarters in Chicago and claims nearly six million customers across 126 U.S. markets.

It’s interesting that Sprint last November announced intent to purchase U.S. Celullar’s PCS spectrum and customers in Midwest U.S. for $480 million in cash, seemingly in an effort to broaden its own coverage in these areas.

That deal, Dillon said, is on track to close in the second quarter of this year. U.S. Cellular plans to deploy fourth-generation Long-Term Evolution (LTE) service to 87 percent of its subscribers this year.