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U.S. Cellular celebrates 20th anniversary of wireless service

As part of its 20th anniversary celebration, U.S. Cellular presented a check for $10,000 to the Knoxville Area Urban League’s Digital Academy. On hand for the presentation were (from left) Tom Catani, vice president for U.S. Cellular Eastern Operatio- Dan Barile/farragutpress
A lot has changed for U.S. Cellular since it started on Dec. 23, 1983.

One major change the cellular company has experienced the last 20 years is a significant jump in its customer base.

“The company has gone from zero customers to 4.3 million in that 20 years, and from really being a mid-size rural company to owning major markets like Knoxville and Chicago,” said Jay Ellison, executive vice president and chief operating officer for U.S. Cellular.

Ellison and other U.S. Cellular executives and employees reflected on the company’s growth nationally and in the community during a 20-year anniversary celebration Dec. 17 at the U.S. Cellular Customer Care Center on Cornerstone Drive.

The company, headquartered in Chicago, began serving customers in Knoxville and Tulsa, Okla., in 1985.

“We started with a small, dedicated staff and now the center serves as a hub to the entire region,” Ellison said of the Customer Care Center in Knoxville, which employs 530.

Ellison added the center was opened in Knoxville because the company thought it would be a good central location for the region.

“It was one of the first markets we brought up back in ’85. It started here and as we added additional markets we decided to have one call center instead of five or six throughout the region and it was apparent that Knoxville would be the best spot,” he said.

Ellison added that the area was a “great community to find a labor force as well.”

“It’s a great pool of people,” he said.

U.S. Cellular now has Customer Care Centers in Medford, Ore., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Madison, Wis., and Waukesha, Wis.

According to the U.S. Cellular Web site, the company reaches 144 markets throughout 26 states and has consolidated revenues totaling $2.2 billion.

U.S. Cellular is working to bring its rising customer base the latest in wireless technology, Ellison said.

“The technology is going from analog to the first type of digital technology that we employed which was CDMA and TDMA and we have evolved again into 1XRTT, which is our CDMA technology, and that has enabled us to provide data services,” he said.

“We’ll be providing picture phone service next year and all kinds of cool products that the technology has evolved and allowed us to do.”

According to a U.S. Cellular press release, the company is in the process of converting its network to CDMA 1XRTT digital technology.

When the conversion is complete in 2004, the network will provide more voice capability, high-speed data products and features and expanded coverage areas, the press release states.

The company recently launched its easyedge phone service, a data services product that makes the world or wireless easier to navigate and more entertaining by providing access to breaking news, sports, stock quotes, weather conditions, movie listings, greeting cards and games.

U.S. Cellular also provides easyedge wireless modems, which after insertion into a PCMCIA slot of a notebook PC or PDMA, will provide real-time, wireless connection to the Internet.

Ellison said the company will work on “a lot of new data applications to use over the easyedge network” in 2004.

“We’re also working on other types of products that will help us penetrate the small, college student segments,” he said.

Even though Ellison has been with U.S. Cellular for approximately 19 years, he is still amazed by the technology.

“Every time I hit the send button (on my phone) I am still amazed with the technology,” he said.

One U.S. Cellular customer has been with the company since it started serving customers in Knoxville and has experienced the changes in technology firsthand.

Dorairene Henry of Hardin Valley became the company’s 26th customer after she purchased a car phone in 1985.

“When I signed up back then we had to wait for the phone to come in,” she said.

Henry said she kept the car phone for approximately five years “until they started getting smaller.”

She estimates she has purchased six phones from U.S. Cellular since becoming a customer and has no plans to end her ties with the company.

“I trust them,” she said. “They have always been there for me. I’ve given them a lot of referrals because I believe in them.”

For her loyalty to U.S. Cellular, Henry’s seventh phone was on the house — an LG digital camera phone.

“I can’t wait to get into it,” she said. “I played with it most of the day yesterday.”

Two other customers that signed on when the company started service in Knoxville also received free phones.

But, the giving didn’t stop there. In conjunction with the 20-year celebration, U.S. Cellular presented the Knoxville Area Urban League with a $10,000 donation to support the nonprofit organization’s Digital Academy.

Phyllis Nichols, executive director of the Knoxville Area Urban League, said the donation would be used to “inspire people to be great technology designers.”

“We’re going to be hopefully training future employees as well,” she said.

In addition, U.S. Cellular presented 30 clients of the Helen Ross McNabb Center, ranging from 3 to 16 years old, with holiday gift packages containing coats, clothes, books and toys.

The donations were a part of the company’s Connecting with Our Communities Program.

Interesting wireless facts:

• In 1983, the Federal Communications Commission announced that a lottery system would be used to issue wireless licenses in the top 30 markets. After the announcement, hundreds of thousands of applications were filed and it took the FCC six years to sort through the process.

• In 1983, the first consumer wireless call was placed from Soldier Field in Chicago to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell in Berlin, Germany.

• In 1987, the wireless telecommunications industry topped $1 billion in revenue.

• In 1992, the number of wireless consumers reached 10 million.

• 1n 1997, more than 50 million consumers subscribed to wireless service.

• In 2000, the wireless industry reached its 100 million- customer milestone, making wireless phone service the fastest growing technology in history — growing more quickly that common household items like television and radio.

• Today, more than 150 million Americans subscribe to wireless service.

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