Sprint tinkers with Premier handset upgrade program

Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) is tweaking its handset upgrade policies for its "Premier" customers. The changes come just days after Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) made substantial changes to its own upgrade policy.

Starting April 1, Sprint plans to turn its Premier program into a two-tiered system of "Gold" and Silver" plans, Sprint spokeswoman Roni Singleton confirmed to FierceWireless. Currently, customers who have an individual line retailing for $69.99 per month, or a family plan costing more than $99.99 per month, qualify for the program (customers who have been with Sprint for more than 10 years automatically qualify as well, independent of what their plan is). A chief benefit of the program is that subscribers can upgrade their handset, at the fully subsidized price, after 12 months of service.

Under the new, tiered Sprint system, customers in the "Gold" tier--those who pay at least $89.99 per month for an individual line or $169.99 per month for a family plan, or who have been with Sprint for 10 years--will be able to upgrade their handset at the subsidized price after 12 months of service. Customers in the "Silver" tier won't get the annual upgrade, but will have access to other perks such as discounts on accessories.

The changes won't impact Sprint's "New for You" program, which provides a $75 discount every 12 months toward the purchase of a new phone.

"Because it's common for rewards programs to have levels of benefits that provide more to customers who spend more or have more tenure, Sprint decided to update the program for 2011," Singleton said. "Premier has grown significantly in the two years since we launched it. It's now large enough that having two levels of benefits makes sense. Our Premier customers have told us that it's only fair that we recognize those Premier customers who spend more or have shown us their loyalty by being with us longer."

Additionally, it appears AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) may also be making changes to its upgrade policies. According to unreleased AT&T marketing information obtained by Engadget, AT&T's new policy states that upgrade pricing on new Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones--the standard subsidized price plus $200--will only be available six months into an existing iPhone activation. It's unclear how that change compares with the carrier's existing policy.

AT&T also is discontinuing its $50 and $100 upgrade discounts on non-iPhone devices as of Jan. 23, though eligible customers who pay more than $69 per month can still access the discounts through July 23.

In addition to the upgrade changes, the information shows that AT&T is increasing the price of its 3G MicroCell femtocell product from $149.99 to $199.99.

An AT&T spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Verizon may have sparked the actions by ending its "New Every Two" program earlier this month, which gave existing customers a credit of $30 to $100 toward the purchase of a new phone on contract every two years. Starting Jan. 16, the nation's largest carrier stopped offering the credit to new subscribers and will not re-enroll subscribers in the program once they use the credit. In addition to ending the New Every Two program, Verizon customers will no longer be eligible for a discounted phone upgrade starting at 13 months into their 24-month contract. Instead, they will have to wait until 20 months into the contract to get the discount.

For more:
- see this Boy Genius Report post
- see this Engadget post

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