WWDC: AT&T axes unlimited deal as iPhone upgrade looms

AT&T has introduced new deals for future iPhone users, even as Apple CEO, Steve Jobs offered some respect to the carrier for its work so far...while declining comment on claims the partners may abandon their special relationship.

These new iPhone data deals are set to come into effect on June 7, the same day as Apple's expected introduction of a new model iPhone at WWDC next week.

Spanish carrier, Telefonica, last week dropped iPhone 3G and 3GS from its available catalog as stocks ran low, suggesting new models could be with us momentarily, though not with Flash.

Setting the ground

AT&T is also reported to be sending engineers to its stores to plan and begin setting up a new kind of point-of-sales display, a larger display than normally seen in the carrier's stores and widely regarded as likely in preparation for the introduction of the next-gen iPhone.

I suspect the changes in data tariff are reflective of AT&T getting itself prepared for a multi-carrier future in the US.

Speaking at D: All Things Digital last night, Jobs refused to be drawn on the special relationshiop.

Asked if there would be any advantages to having multiple carriers in the US, he would only say "there might be."

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WWDC: AT&T axes unlimited deal as iPhone upgrade looms

Subsequently asked if that may transpire in the "near future", he said, "You know I can't comment on that."  

In truth it is unwise to read too much into that, as Apple never comments on future products or strategy, but it is a sign that these things aren't set in stone.

There's some evidence, "Over the past year we have moved a number of markets from exclusive to non-exclusive. In each case as we have done that we have seen our unit growth accelerate and our market share improve," said Apple chief operating officer, Tim Cook, during the company's last (Q2 2010) financial call.

Credit where its due

Overall, Jobs seems respectful towards AT&T: "They're doing pretty good in some ways and in others they could do better," he said. "We meet with them once a quarter. Remember, they deal with way more data traffic than anyone else. And they're having trouble."

Apple's CEO noted that AT&T carry the most data of any network, and are improving their network, adding, "I'm convinced that any other network, had you put the iPhone on it, would have had the same problems."

Jobs also notes there's some reason to respect AT&T, because it allowed Apple to sell its iPhone on the network, and in doing so it changed the rules of the game.

"AT&T took a big leap on us and decided they were going to trust us to do the right thing with the phone. And that's worked out quite well for both of us."

Capped data

Perhaps so, but as WWDC 2010 approaches, AT&T has introduced new capped data deals for future iPhone customers -- while reassuring existing customers their unlimited $30 deal is safe.

AT&T's new deal sees the carrier eliminate its $30/month unlimited plan for new iPhone customers.  Instead, new customers can choose between Data Plus, a $15/month (200MB) or Data Pro, a $25/month (2GB) capped data plan.

Existing iPhone customers can hang onto their existing $30/month unlimited plan even if they choose to upgrade to a new model, the carrier said.

"The good news for current customers who love their unlimited plan is this: they are not required to switch, even when it's time to upgrade to a new phone."

AT&T also announced the end of its critically-acclaimed $29.99 unlimited data plan for iPad, replacing this with a $25 for 2GB of data over 30 days plan.

Tethering at last

One small bonus for iPhone users: AT&T announced support for tethering via an iPhone, meaning you'll be able to hitch your Mac or PC onto the carrier's 3G network when out on the road. The bad news? There's a $20/month charge for this.

These deals aren't expected to dent US demand for the Apple product. Foxconn is expected to manufacture 24 million units of Apple's next-gen iPhone in 2010.

Jobs refused to be drawn on the AT&T relationship. Asked about call quality he said he'd been told that carrier has been working hard to improve call quality.

"Things, when you start to fix them, get worse before they get better," he said, "That's what I'm told. And if you believe that, things should start getting a lot better soon."

Specifically he said a "lot of places" are going to get a lot better by the end of the summer.

AT&T last week raised its early termination fee for smartphone users wanting to end their contract early, again suggesting more competition in future.

That competition may not be immediate.

"I don't expect to see a Verizon-compatible iPhone until early 2011 and that's assuming everything remains equal. Changes to development could push that timeframe back even further," wrote Jim Dalrymple.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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