Telecom

Cheaper iPhone Plans from AT&T?


Victor Lin wants an iPhone, but he's put off by the price. The smartphone costs at least $199 up front, and if he wants unlimited Web and e-mail access in addition to calling, he'll need to pay an additional $70 a month. "I like the idea of having a full-featured Web browser," says Lin, a 43-year-old San Francisco software engineer. "However, I think the monthly fee is a little bit too high."

AT&T (T) may have gotten the message. The exclusive U.S. iPhone service provider is considering cutting the price of its monthly service package or offering a range of lower-priced plans, say people with knowledge of the company's thinking. One plan that could be introduced as early as late May would include limited data access at a $10 monthly reduction, the people say.

The possible price cut likely reflects the back-and-forth between AT&T and Apple (AAPL) as they work out whether and under what terms AT&T would remain the sole U.S. iPhone carrier. Apple may want flexibility in pricing as a condition, analysts say. "We understand it's part of the extension [of its contract] that AT&T wants to maintain," Richard Doherty, director at consultant Envisioneering Group, says of the prospect of lower data-plan prices. As Apple considers whether to widen its circle of U.S. providers, AT&T may have less ability to balk at Apple's requests. Representatives of Apple and AT&T declined to comment.

AT&T and Apple also have added scope for price reductions as iPhone manufacturing costs decline. Apple plans to introduce a new version of iPhone software in June, and it may unveil a new, cheaper device in June or July. New devices may cost as much as one-third less to produce than earlier versions, Doherty says. The cost of touchscreens, the most expensive component, has declined by more than 30% in the past year, estimates Michael Cote, an analyst at consultant Cote Collaborative Wireless Strategy.

Lower-priced data plans would probably lure a lot of fence-sitters, including students and consumers with lower incomes. A reduction could boost AT&T's iPhone subscriber additions by 20% to 25%, estimates wireless industry consultant Chetan Sharma. A survey late last year by comScore (SCOR) indicated that 43% of iPhone buyers earned more than $100,000 a year. But many of the wealthiest subscribers have already signed up. In the first quarter, AT&T activated 1.6 million iPhones, and 40% of those activations were for users new to AT&T. "[A price reduction] absolutely makes sense," Sharma says. "AT&T is starting to hit a wall in terms of new subscribers." In the first quarter of 2009, AT&T's net subscriber additions were 5.6% lower than in the year-earlier period.

A $99 iPhone or a Prepaid iPhone?

Some analysts have speculated that in addition to cutting the price of service plans, AT&T will also reduce the up-front price of the new iPhone by as much as $100, to $99. Apple is even toying with the idea of coming out with a prepaid iPhone, opening up the device to mainstream consumers, Doherty says.

A cheaper plan, coupled with new and possibly cheaper iPhones, could give AT&T a larger share of the U.S. smartphone market. "They are going to give AT&T the bulk of smartphone users [in the country]," Doherty says. And unless prices drop on other smartphones in AT&T's stable, those rival handset makers, such as Research In Motion (RIMM), could end up losing market share in AT&T's stores. The plan could also make it more difficult for the new Palm (PALM) Pre, expected from Sprint Nextel (S) in June, to gain share. "That would definitely push the pricing on high-end smartphones down," Sharma says.

A new plan could also usher in an era of tiered wireless data plans for consumers from other carriers, too. Already, AT&T offers corporate data plans for BlackBerry devices, among other gadgets; these include the unlimited option, as well as cheaper plans with caps on monthly data usage. Some data plans also allow for so-called tethering, which lets users cut costs by using the phone—instead of a wireless data card—to get wireless broadband access on a computer. But there's less flexibility for consumers that way; data plans for smartphones typically include unlimited data and go for a flat $30 a month. Many analysts think it may make sense to offer a cheaper limited option for, say, $20 a month.

The rest of the industry will likely mirror AT&T's moves into tiers of personal wireless data services to stem iPhone-related subscriber defections. "It seems to me if there's one carrier who is more at risk [of losing subscribers], it's Sprint," says Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research (FORR). "Their marketing has been about their unlimited plan being a better value." But Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile may need to take a page from AT&T's playbook as well.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

Olga_kharif1
Kharif is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in Portland, Ore.

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