Source: Flickr user mauritsonline
Cult of Mac reported last week that T-Mobile USA will likely offer the iPhone during the third quarter of the year. The development comes amid increasing speculation about the end of AT&T’s exclusive grip on the iPhone, and is a move that would shake up the U.S. mobile industry in a big way.
Verizon has long been rumored to be the first carrier other than AT&T to offer Apple’s iconic gadget, but I’m inclined to declare the T-Mobile rumors a far more likely scenario for three primary reasons:
1. The networks: Like AT&T, T-Mobile operates on GSM technology. Verizon, on the other hand, uses a CDMA network, which means Apple would essentially have to gut the current iPhone to make it compatible with the network of the nation’s largest carrier (which certainly isn’t implausible). A T-Mo iPhone could be produced much more easily.
2. The App Store: Verizon has earned its reputation as a controlling operator that wants to own as much of the value chain and consumer experience as possible. (Want proof? The carrier continues to build out its own app-distribution business despite the fact that the field is already over-crowded.) Apple’s App Store challenges that strategy in two ways: It cuts carriers out of the APP revenue chain entirely and it allows Apple to present its brand directly to the customer. Verizon simply won’t sacrifice download revenues to offer the iPhone unless it decides it absolutely must carry the phone. But as the smallest tier-one carrier, T-Mobile is far more likely to enter into the kind of bittersweet marriage that AT&T finds itself in in exchange for the visibility boost and subscriber additions.
3. The Droid lineup. Any operator would love to offer the iPhone, of course, but Verizon’s portfolio includes iPhone-worthy competitors like Motorola’s Droid X and HTC’s Incredible, not to mention its line of BlackBerry handsets. Indeed, Verizon’s smartphones continue to fuel the carrier’s growth, which means it is doing just fine without having to genuflect to the folks in Cupertino.
A coup for T-Mobile?
Carrying the iPhone would be an especially big coup for T-Mobile, a carrier often overshadowed by its bigger counterparts. The operator, which is owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, would see a surge of iPhone lovers who adore their handsets but hate AT&T’s network. Unlike AT&T, which has done away with all-you-can-eat data plans, T-Mobile offers unlimited voice, text and Internet for only $80 a month, which would surely capture the attention of data-hungry iPhone users. And while the iPhone has yet to support HSPA+, future versions could enable users to tap T-Mobile’s 21 Mbps network. A T-Mobile iPhone could also pave the way for a T-Mobile iPad, providing an opportunity for the carrier to tap all the data-hungry users of that tablet who are furious over AT&T’s new data plans. (It’s currently possible for iPad users to access T-Mobile’s 3G network by jury-rigging the gadget; official support from the carrier would make that much easier.)
And just as the iPhone would be a huge boost for T-Mobile, the inevitable end of AT&T’s exclusive grip on the gadget would be a massive blow for the nation’s second-largest carrier. Apple has been a godsend for AT&T in recent years; the iPhone accounted for an astounding 3.2 million activations for AT&T in the most recent quarter. AT&T could kiss those kinds of sales goodbye if the iPhone becomes available elsewhere with unlimited plans that are cheaper than AT&T’s capped plans.
Engadget reported earlier this year that Apple and AT&T signed a five-year exclusivity deal in 2007, but factors such as AT&T’s network woes and overhauled data plans may have given Apple an out. There’s still no official word, but the rumors of a T-Mobile iPhone have the whiff of authenticity. If so, the nation’s smallest major carrier is about to get substantially bigger — and AT&T should be preparing for some serious turbulence.