When the iconic iPhone arrives for Verizon Wireless' network, will that mean a mass exodus from AT&T's network, the brunt of late-night jokes and grumblings by unhappy consumers? Not so fast, say analysts.
Analysts once again are weighing in on the prospects of what will happen to major players in the wireless value chain since Bloomberg's report this week that Verizon Wireless will be getting the iPhone come January. Citing "two people familiar with the matter," the report said Apple and Verizon will unveil a CDMA version of the device sometime in January, possibly at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
While the report hasn't been confirmed by either Apple or Verizon Wireless, it's gaining steam and analysts are saying it might not be as immediately bad for AT&T as one might think.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television, James Ratcliffe, an analyst with Barclay's Capital, said that the end of iPhone exclusivity for AT&T would mean a modest loss but that much of what the carrier would lose it would regain in a decrease in subsidies it pays to Apple for the phone. Likewise, Verizon would take a hit immediately as it begins paying the heavy subsidy required to carry the iPhone. Ratcliffe also says that it's just not as easy for people to switch carriers as many think, citing numbers that show 70 percent of iPhones on AT&T are currently wrapped up in a family plan.
Maynard Um, analyst for UBS Research, agrees there would not be a material impact to Apple from Verizon Wireless customers deciding to "take a chance" on the news and wait for a CDMA iPhone rather than switch to AT&T.
"Our survey work indicates 80 percent of early iPhone purchasers were upgrading from prior versions of the iPhone, which is directionally similar to our U.S. Wireless Services analyst John Hodulik's belief that 90 percent of new iPhone sales have been made to existing AT&T customers. We see little to no impact in international markets," wrote Um in a research note.
And while that may be true for the primary players here, sales for Research In Motion (RIM) and Motorola could get hurt if customers decide to wait on new Android purchases. "We believe RIM and Motorola shares reacted negatively to concerns that Verizon Wireless subscribers may hold off purchasing new handsets this year to wait for an iPhone," Um said.
Prevailing opinion has been that AT&T would see a massive exodus once the iPhone went elsewhere, given ongoing grumbling about AT&T's network quality. However, Barclay's Ratcliffe said that perception about the amount of dissatisfaction with AT&T's network is probably distorted due to the fact that the tech press is largely based in New York and San Francisco, where AT&T's coverage has suffered the most.
"What you've seen is up to this point, churn at Verizon, which hasn't had the iPhone, has not been noticeably different, in fact it's been practically identical to AT&T's. I'm not expecting to see the flood of customers move over," Ratcliffe said.
Kevin Burden, vice president and practice director of mobile devices for ABI Research, says that when and if it does come, an iPhone at Verizon Wireless won’t be as big a surprise as it once would have been.
"We’re three years into this exclusive agreement. Did anyone think it was going last this long? If Apple is ready to open this up, it's as good a time as any. At this point, it’s not as if Apple will be damaging its relationship with AT&T,” Burden says.
When asked whether newer Android handsets like the Evo and the Droid X might make the arrival of the iPhone 4 on Verizon any less of a big event, Burden says the situation now is no different than it was a couple of a years ago. “There's always been new devices and there's always been devices that show a leap in ingenuity and innovation. Still, I think people who want an iPhone want an iPhone. Choice has always been there.”
One thing Burden questions about these latest reports is the January timeframe, which falls after the holidays and right around CES, which generally feeds off new hardware and not new carrier agreements to carry an existing handset.
“It would be very odd timing. CES is an insider show. What makes a big splash at CES is new hardware. People will look at news of an operator getting the iPhone and will say, ‘big deal,’” Burden says, adding that it could work if Verizon adds something new to the iPhone, like support for Verizon’s LTE network. “They could make a big splash that way.”
So who stands to gain if the iPhone goes elsewhere? Burden says it’s whichever operator captures the iPhone next. Verizon is just another carrier to Apple, which has been lighting up the iPhone on networks around the world lately.
Neverthless, he admits that from a customer’s point of view in the United States, it's “huge."