Apple Inc. said Tuesday that C Spire Wireless, the country's eighth-largest phone company, will start selling the iPhone 4S in a few weeks.
That's a major coup for the small company, which provides service in Mississippi and surrounding states. So far, only the three biggest carriers sell the iPhone in the U.S. C Spire is bypassing the rest, including T-Mobile USA and U.S. Cellular, in getting the right to sell it.
Neither C Spire, which was known as Cellular South until a month ago, nor Apple explained why C Spire was getting the phone rather than the No. 4 carrier, T-Mobile.
Analyst Jan Dawson of Ovum found the announcement puzzling.
"Leapfrogging T-Mobile certainly feels like a slap in the face, and you could argue that there are others that should have come first," he said.
The iPhone 4S isn't compatible with T-Mobile USA's high-speed wireless data network, so Apple would have to change its design or make a version specific to T-Mobile. But Dawson believes that's a minor hurdle to overcome. The iPhone 4 exists in two versions for different networks already. Chicago-based U.S. Cellular Corp.'s network is compatible with one of them, but it isn't selling the phone.
Sprint Nextel Corp. began selling the iPhone last week. AT&T Inc. had it exclusively for more than three years, until Verizon Wireless started selling it in February.
Verizon, the largest carrier, has more than 100 million phones and other devices on its network, which compares to 1 million at C Spire. While it's tiny in comparison to other U.S. carriers, there are several overseas iPhone carriers that have fewer subscribers.
Hu Meena, the CEO of C Spire, testified in Washington in 2009 that small companies like his were denied access to the most attractive phones, as those were tied up with exclusive arrangements with the larger carriers.
C Spire, which is based in Ridgeland, Miss., has subscribers in Mississippi as well as the Memphis, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla. areas.