sprint The idea that any individual market can only support a small number of wireless carriers gained support today with U.S. Cellular’s announcement that it would sell assets in some of the nation’s largest metro markets to Sprint. U.S. Cellular is selling its Chicago, St. Louis, central Illinois and three other Midwest markets to Sprint for $480 million.

On a webcast with press and analysts today, U.S. Cellular executives said the move will enable the company to focus on stronger markets. In a press release issued today, U.S. Cellular said the sale includes PCS spectrum and approximately 585,000 customers or about 10% of the wireless carrier’s total customer base.

The company also noted, however, that for the nine months ended Sept. 30, 2012, the transaction markets “after all direct and indirect costs, incurred an operating loss.” U.S. Cellular is the nation’s seventh-largest wireless carrier and in markets such as Chicago it has at least that many competitors.

But none of this prevented U.S. Cellular from obtaining what it called an “attractive valuation” of $820 per subscriber – and that’s not surprising, considering the wireless market’s apparently insatiable demand for spectrum.

For Sprint, the U.S. Cellular deal brings 20 MHz of PCS spectrum in the 1900 MHz band in Chicago; South Bend, Ind.; Champaign, Ill. and other markets, along with 10 MHz of PCS spectrum in the St. Louis market. The move comes not long after Sprint said it expected a cash infusion from Asian wireless carrier SoftBank.

U.S. Cellular, meanwhile, is left with numerous markets in rural areas and smaller metro markets, where the company may have fewer competitors.

The Sprint- U.S. Cellular deal is the latest example of the wireless industry’s ongoing reshuffling of spectrum and other assets. Verizon recently purchased unused spectrum from several of the nation’s largest cable companies, while AT&T has a range of deals pending to acquire more spectrum. And T-Mobile is hoping to acquire MetroPCS.

The Sprint- U.S. Cellular transaction is subject to regulatory approvals and is expected to close in mid-2013.

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