How Apple put the hurt on carriers’ subscriber growth

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Apple’s decision to delay until September the launch of the iPhone 4S put a damper on what is usually a very merry pre-holiday quarter for the U.S. wireless industry. In total, the four nationwide mobile operators roped in 767,000 postpaid subscribers in the third quarter, a 14.5 percent decrease from last year, according to UBS.

In comparison, second quarter net postpaid adds increased 9.2 precent year over year – a quarter where there is traditionally no new iPhone to offer operators a bump, but this year was aided by Verizon’s snagging a CDMA version of the iconic device. The two major iPhone slingers didn’t do badly in the third quarter, but in UBS’ view their net adds were nowhere near the numbers either operator would have achieved if they had new iPhones to offer subscribers.

Verizon Wireless reported 882,000 net postpaid adds, while AT&T recorded 319,000, with a combined 4.7 million new iPhone activations between them.

That means the fourth quarter could be a bonanza for the wireless industry, combining the usual holiday craziness with the traditional third-quarter new-iPhone bump. UBS predicts a whopping 11.7 million iPhone activations between Verizon, AT&T and Sprint in the final three months of the year. That will result in 1.3 million total postpaid adds for national operators, up from 1 million in last year’s fourth quarter, UBS projects.

A lot of those customers will go to Verizon and Sprint – as the iPhone newbies – but UBS thinks the big winner will be AT&T. It will have the only “free” iPhone as the 3GS will be entirely subsidized with a two-year contract. UBS also believes that AT&T’s network will actually work for it rather than against it. The iPhone 4S has a 14.4 Mbps high-speed packet access (HSPA) chip tailor-made for AT&T’s network, compared to the slower CDMA EV-DO chips used to access Sprint’s and Verizon’s 3G networks. That may sound a lot of gibberish to the typical consumer, but AT&T merely has to say that its iPhone is faster than the others.

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