Sprint to launch iPhone 4S Oct. 14, along with AT&T, Verizon

And then there were three.

As expected, Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) became the third U.S. carrier to launch Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone 4S, putting the nation's No. 3 carrier onto a more level playing field with its larger competitors, Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T).

Apple CEO Tim Cook made the announcement as part of the unveiling of the iPhone 4S at a media event at the company's headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. The iPhone 4S will support both GSM and CDMA networks and will be available Oct. 14 in the United States. The device will come in three variants, a 16 GB model for $199, a 32 GB model for $299 and, for the first time, a 64 GB model for $399, all with two-year contracts.

The announcement means that T-Mobile USA, which AT&T is trying to acquire, is the only Tier 1 U.S. carrier that will not carry the iPhone.

Apple also said an 8 GB iPhone 4 will be available for $99 with a two-year contract to Verizon, AT&T and Sprint subscribers and that the iPhone 3GS will be free with a two-year contract to AT&T customers.

Analysts said the iPhone coming to Sprint could be a boon for the nation's No. 3 carrier, which has struggled with postpaid subscriber losses. It also marks an abrupt shift for Sprint, which has been a stalwart supporter of Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android platform.

"An iPhone should significantly help Sprint in gaining switchers because of their unlimited data proposition," said Current Analysis analyst William Ho. "I expect that Sprint would ratchet up the marketing and promotion of this feature differentiating it against Verizon Wireless and AT&T. The T-Mobile base could be susceptible as well. Existing iPhone users are running on non-3G speeds and those who are looking for speed and data value could look at Sprint. It goes without saying that regional player U.S. Cellular would also be susceptible to a Sprint iPhone."

Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner said he thinks the Sprint iPhone 4S will induce a lot of customers from other carriers to switch. "Upgrades are fine and good, but they [Sprint] have played defense with every other larger phone launch in the last four years," he said. "It's time for them to play offense."

Analysts said the fact that the iPhone 4S is a world phone with GSM and CDMA capabilities could benefit customers who use AT&T's HSPA+ network, since the HSDPA speeds the phone supports will be faster than EV-DO data.

Sprint's trump card in the battle for market share will be its unlimited data plans, which start for smartphones at $79.99 per month, and include unlimited mobile-to-mobile voice minutes, 450 anytime minutes, unlimited messaging and unlimited data.

Both AT&T and Verizon have discontinued their unlimited data plans in favor of tiered data plans. (Verizon launched the iPhone 4 in February with unlimited data, and subsequently introduced usage-based data pricing for new smartphone customers in July.) AT&T offers 200 MB of data for $15 and 2 GB for $25. Verizon's smartphone data plans start at 2 GB for $30, and go up to 10 GB for $80. Both carriers offer unlimited voice for $70 per month.

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