At a time when T-Mobile is trying to redefine the less-than-stellar reputation of wireless carriers, it looks like regional player US Cellular has taken a big step backwards. The company is no longer allowing customers to access the upgrade reward in the Belief Project, which allowed those who had completed an eighteen month contract to buy a new phone at the subsidized price without signing another contract. After July 27th, US Cellular customers will have the same old contractual ball and chain if they buy a new device at the advertised price.

The news comes from Engadget, which confirmed the change with US Cellular after being tipped by an anonymous source. The company's quote is below (emphasis added):

At U.S. Cellular, we are continually evaluating the entire experience we offer to our customers. Beginning later this month, all customers will be required to sign a 2-year contract when purchasing a subsidized device. In addition, a restocking fee of $35 will be introduced as an update to the 15-Day Excellence Guarantee policy and will be charged when a customer returns a device during the 15-day time period. These changes will allow us to invest in improving our customer experience and offering new products and services to our customers.

While the percentage of customers taking advantage of these benefits was probably pretty small, and infinitesimal compared to the greater US market, it's still discouraging to see carriers become less customer-friendly. As of December 2010, US Cellular claimed one million participants in the Belief Project, though it's not known how many of them took advantage of the chance to upgrade without a contract. T-Mobile's "Uncarrier" and JUMP! programs have been trying to lower prices and increase options as of late, and new initiatives from AT&T and Verizon have at least been trying to match it (even if they're a diabolical attempt to keep customers shackled to one service).

It's unclear if the rest of the Belief Project, which included points for faster upgrades, free accessories, and bill payment in a manner similar to airline miles, will be sticking around. The link to the Belief Project on US Cellular's website now redirects to a points program FAQ, but the Rewards Program itself appears to be intact. So if you're a US Cellular customer who's been sitting on an upgrade for a while, you might want to get a new device before next Saturday, and save yourself a possible early termination fee. Of course, there's always the option to pay for a phone outright and avoid the whole mess.

Source: Engadget