AT&T to offer $49 iPhone

Though it will be an older model, users can get Apple's flagship smart phone -- and AT&T will get more data-hungry subscribers.

By InvestorPlace Jan 6, 2011 9:55AM

Credit: Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds up iPhone 4 as he talks about the Apple iPhone 4 at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., Friday, July 16, 2010 (© Paul Sakuma/AP)
 By Jeff Reeves, editor of

If there's one thing Apple Inc. (AAPL) knows, it's the importance of staying on top of the personal-electronics game via constant refining. The iPhone is in its fourth incarnation since its launch, almost four years ago to the day, and a fifth version is expected soon. Consumers are already looking ahead to the iPad 2, even though the groundbreaking tablet PC is just 8 months old.

But it appears that someone at AT&T (T) didn't get the memo on this, despite the telecom's close ties with Apple on the iPhone. In a surprising move, AT&T has decided to push an already outdated Apple smart phone model with its latest scheme: a $49 iPhone 3GS, as long as customers sign a two-year contract. The deal starts Friday.

The move is puzzling on the surface, since most consumers won't be thrilled about the prospects of a nearly 2-year-old phone -- coupled with a contract that lasts until that phone almost turns 4. But a closer look at AT&T's books shows that it may be a very wise move in the long run -- both for consumers and the telecom giant.

AT&T had 92.8 million wireless subscribers at the end of September. While many horse-race the overall subscribers of AT&T and other wireless carriers like Sprint (S) and Verizon (VZ), it's important to acknowledge that the kind of subscriber is just as important as the raw numbers.

Specifically for AT&T, the bulk of its revenue growth in its wireless sales is coming from a shift from voice to data fees -- in the third quarter of 2010, AT&T's wireless-data revenue rose $1.1 billion, or 30.5%, to $4.8 billion.

The idea of relying on an old phone (in tech years, anyway) may not appeal to the cutting-edge tech crowd. But the bottom line is that those folks will always be looking for the next big thing. There's no guarantee that even the next-generation iPhone won't be trounced by a flashy Android-powered smart phone.

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But if AT&T can find some growth in less avid smart-phone users, folks who don't necessarily need to be ahead of the personal-electronics curve but still want a phone with decent apps, it could really see revenue growth.

The key is that the $49 iPhone 3GS comes with a two-year service contract and data plan, and that data plan is where AT&T is seeing its biggest revenue growth.

There are certainly things that can backfire here. Critics of AT&T's network will malign the fact that rising data use has not only been filling up the telecom company's pockets but has also created bottlenecks on an antiquated network.

And with Verizon rumored to be launching an iPhone deal as soon as this year, AT&T may have a hard time replacing departing Apple fans with folks who want an older model. And let's not forget that the iPhone 3GS is already offered for $99 since the iPhone 4 debuted last June.

So technically this isn't a new plan to boost profits, just a $50 price cut on an established business model.

Still, putting an iPhone in the hands of folks for just $49 could move the needle for AT&T, especially if those customers get hooked and upgrade data plans or their smart phones.

Jeff Reeves is editor of Follow him on Twitter at​effReevesIP. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.


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Jan 6, 2011 1:31PM

This man, Mr Ralph De La Vega, is the ship captain who is responcable for the service program. When you call in and your waisted time calling in goes south in a hand basket, it is his fault for not training the folks who lied on their app.


It was a better company when Ed was the Man...

Jan 6, 2011 1:08PM
I have ATT home phone and had the super slow 3G not so fast DSL for my PC. Some how they (ATT) didn't seem to get consumer service up to any kind of useful system. Why do they hire and not train employees. I also think that service employees must of all lied on the app. because they  seem to lie when confronted with what they said the last time calling in. I don't see the new products being released as going to help their market share. But many other phone companies have much of the same issue. In my view, THE FIRST COMPANY (to have notch polite customer service) WILL WIN !!!
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