AT&T Mobility's exclusive rights to sell Apple's iPhone in the United States has been the subject of intense speculation and scrutiny, most recently from the FCC. However, according to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, within a year all that noise will be largely irrelevant. According to Munster, Apple is slowly transitioning to a model in which multiple carriers sell the iPhone in each country.
"We expect Apple to add new iPhone carriers in the U.S. within the next year (likely with a new product launch next summer," Munster wrote in a research note as part of an examination of the 14 "unanswered questions" about Apple. "By way of example, for various reasons the company moved from an exclusive relationship with French wireless carrier Orange to a multi-carrier model. In France, the company now enjoys dramatically higher market share (in the 40 percent range vs. about 15 percent in ROW) than in countries with exclusive carrier agreements (such as AT&T in the U.S. where the iPhone has market share in the mid-teens)."
Indeed, in the wake of last week's blockbuster deal with China Unicom to bring the iPhone to China, Apple confirmed that the deal was not an exclusive one. Apple declined to discuss what other carriers it was in talks with. Piper Jaffray said that Apple may sell more than 3 million iPhone units in China next year.
Apple continues to maintain that its relationship with AT&T is a healthy one. However, Verizon Wireless has been rumored to be a possible new carrier partner once AT&T's exclusivity runs out.
The FCC has said it will research exclusive handset deals between carriers and device manufacturers, like the contract between AT&T and Apple for the iPhone, to consider the competitive ramifications, including effects on rural wireless customers unable to access the handsets.
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