AT&T Reshapes Itself As a Smartphone Carrier

ref_iphone3g_pairAT&T (s T), the Dallas-based wireless carrier, on Friday began an image makeover, repositioning itself as the leading U.S. smartphone provider and preparing an ad campaign sans its most iconic handset, the iPhone.

“We’ve taken integrated devices mainstream,” AT&T chief marketing officer David Christopher said in a statement, adding that nearly a third of the carrier’s postpaid customers use one. In March, AT&T led its rivals with 11.8 million smartphone users, or 47 percent of all U.S. smartphone customers, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing data from M:Metrics, the mobile research division of analytics firm comScore. That compared to 5.1 million smartphone subscribers for Verizon Wireless (s VZ), 4 million for Sprint (s s) and 3.7 million for T-Mobile.

Along with its Wi-Fi hotspot network and growing number of “quick-messaging” devices, however, AT&T in the release omitted Apple’s (s AAPL) iPhone among a list of smartphones (such as the BlackBerry Bold and Nokia E71x) it offers. The iPhone, which accounted for 73 percent of new subscribers, is also clearly absent from AT&T’s new smartphone ad blitz. Nokia’s E71x (s nok) replaces the Apple handset in the starring role.

Christopher pointed to several reasons for the upsurge in data usage by subscribers. Its smartphone lead could grow even further following Monday’s $2.35 billion purchase of Verizon’s rural wireless spectrum. We asked at the time whether the move was simply a blocking tactic by AT&T to keep rivals at bay.

Although AT&T is touting its lead in postpaid smartphone subscribers, the carrier is just now taking steps to gain a better foothold in the prepaid market, an area where rivals have a head start. A week ago, the carrier announced a $3-per-day plan for those customers not inclined to contracts.

While AT&T understands its exclusive iPhone deal may expire in 2011, it’s not giving up on plans to build a faster network – something Apple appears to want. AT&T is moving forward on an HSPA upgrade, diverging from an LTE network Verizon and others are exploring.iphone