Sprint's gamble

The Wall Street Journal reported that Sprint Nextel made a “multibillion-dollar” gamble on the iPhone. This is based on information that Sprint committed to buy 30.5 million iPhones over the next four years.

Wall Street Journal reporters calculated that the deal is worth around $20 billion on the basis of iPhone ASP during the last quarter (about $650). That Sprint would get that price is possible but not necessarily correct as there is likely to be some discount and the ASP Apple receives includes accessories.

But the “gamble” is more than the deal value. The way it’s being reported is that Sprint bet the company on being able to sell this many iPhones. So naturally we have to ask: how hard can it be to sell 31 million iPhones?

First, note that the order is over a four year period. It’s also not likely to be linear, with volumes accelerating over time. If I estimate a ramp where in year one the commitment is for 4 million, year two 6, year three 9 and year four 12 million we get a total of 31 million. Can Sprint sell this volume?

To get an idea we can look at the sales rates for the other US operators. I built a table of iPhone sales by Operator last July. The data is shown in the following chart:

What is interesting is to see the number of iPhones sold in a given time frame as a percent of subscriber base. I chose to measure a year’s worth of iPhones where I extrapolated Verizon’s volumes from the six months reported so far.

The ratios are that Verizon sold iPhones at the rate of about “10% of its subscriber base per year”. AT&T has been selling at the rate of about “17% of its subs per year”. If we average these two we get about 13.6%.

So if we assume that Sprint can sell iPhones at about the same rate as Verizon or AT&T (as a percent of their user base which was 51.1 million) we get about 7 million iPhones per year.

That’s right in the middle of the range it needs to get to 31 in four years [4,6,9,12]. I charted the projection on the following chart:

So the gamble Sprint is taking is that they will be able to sell iPhones at the same rate as Verizon and AT&T.

How is this risky?

The deal seems to be inline with what is known about the product’s popularity and the pattern of purchasing and upgrades that US consumers have been exhibiting for a few years.

As with AT&T and Verizon, volumes ramp up over time. As with AT&T, users are loyal and they upgrade regularly. As with Verizon, there is competition from Android and Blackberry. As with both, payment is expected up-front with payback over the duration of contract length. As with the others, there will be incentives to keep churn down.

If anything the riskiest thing for Sprint would have been not to do the deal at all. Indeed, we’ll get to see the effect of that option on T-Mobile.

  • So not exactly betting the house then.

    • Even if it was betting the house, the alternative of not betting is the equivalent of having the house go into foreclosure.

  • Krishnakumar Menon

    Spot On

  • Anecdotally carrier store employees seem incentivized to steer customers away from iPhone. Sprint will have no trouble making the numbers (and Apple’s right to insist on a commitment.)

    • Anonymous

      That is because carrier store employees are often gadget nerds, so they like phones that come in a kind of kit. The carriers make more money from iPhones.

      • Perhaps. More likely it’s because carrier store employees receive commissions from device vendors in proportion to how many of their brand are sold. Apple does not pay this commission.

      • deV

        It’s because they actually know something about the phones.

      • Anonymous

        Hahah…Next time you will be saying that Best Buy employees know something about the products they sell, and its their knowledge, and not their commissions driving their recommendations.

      • Microsoft has committed “billions” to promote Nokia’s Windows Phones. Most of that will be spent on sales commissions. This system does create some side-effects however. When the commissions stop, sales staff tend to steer customers away from the product as “punishment”.

  • Anonymous

    this really begs the question: Why didnt T-mobile take the same offer? Tmobile has around 15 million less than sprint: 35 million. give or take a millon. 13 percent of that is 4 million x 650 = 2,400,000,000. Which is like 10 billion or so for 4 years.

    There’s no reason to think Deutsch Telecom wouldn’t okay this. It might even drive people back to T-mobile. Think of all the ppl that already run ATT iphones on T-mob.
    the prospective ATTTmobile merger has actually stopped T-mobile from making moves that would’ve made t-mobile compeittive. Pretty amazing monopolistic foresight from ATT. Think of how many ATT customers would switch to T-mobile if they could get cheaper data rates on their iphone 5s!!!

    • Anonymous

      Same old reason: incompatible privatized US networks. There is no iPhone that is compatible with T-Mobile USA’s nonstandard 3G frequencies. The 1 million iPhones that currently run on T-Mobile USA are 2G only.

      Sprint can run the same phone as Verizon with full features.

      Plus, T-Mobile is merging with AT&T. Why would Apple bother with them? The same effort can be put towards adding an international carrier who will work with them for the next 5 years.

    • “Why didn’t T-mobile take the same offer?”-campcamp

      Do we know if Apple made them the same offer?

      • Tim F.

        Agreed. It’s seems far more likely that Apple considers T-Mobile’s fate sealed, and its spectrum requirements too small a market to bother with.

  • ajmcarlson

    Well, when you consider that the actual number of Sprint-brand postpaid subscribers was only 33 million, the conversion number of postpaid customers needs to be much higher than what is suggested above.

    • Anonymous

      That is not necessarily true. Some of those iPhones may be a new low-end prepay iPhone. Sprint could sell half prepay and half postpay if that is what their customers want.

      Prepay is growing in the US because nobody here can pass a credit check anymore since Mr. Bush destroyed the economy.

    • That’s a valid point. However, the iPhone’s job is to convert pre-paid to post- and I believe that this was achieved to some degree at AT&T. Is there data on this?

      • ajmcarlson

        So here is the data I have – it may paint a slightly different picture.
        If we pretend that all iPhone acquirers for Sprint and Verizon are postpaid subscribers (which I think is probably closer to the truth than the iPhone spread out proportionally among the top line wireless customers) (figures are from the most recent quarterly reports):

        AT&T has a top-line customer base of 98.6 mn. However, only 68.4 mn (69.3%) are post-paid.

        Verizon has a top-line customer base of 106.3 mn, of whom 85.3 mn (80.2%) are postpaid.

        Sprint has around 63% postpaid subscribers.

        Backtracking the figures in the charts from the percentages, you estimate VZ to sell about 10.6 mn iPhones this year to their customers – a rate of 12.4% of the postpaid base, while AT&T will sell around 16.8 million iPhones, a rate of around 24.5% of the postpaid base. Averaging those out , we get around an 18.5% average (simple average).

        18.5%*33mn is roughly 6.1 mn iPhones per year, on average, or 24 million – a nearly 6 mn iPhone surplus. To hit 30 mn in 4 years, Sprint would have to average ~22.8% of its postpaid customers switching to the iPhone – numbers much closer to AT&T, many of whose iPhone customers are carryovers from the early days when the iPhone was the only good smartphone. But given what happened at Verizon, that does not seem as likely. Barring additional, very expensive promotions from Sprint, I would bet against that sort of conversion rate.

        As for prepaid to post-paid switching, according to the quarterly reports, AT&T’s postpaid subscriber base is up 8.6% over the past two years, but the prepaid base is up 25%. There may be some analyst report out there somewhere with more details, but based on the info in free documents, there’s too much noise to tell if AT&T succeeded in using the iPhone to switch prepaid customers to postpaid.

        Quite frankly, I find the idea that the iPhone was intended to switch prepaid customers to postpaid to be a little odd, given that prepaid purchasers tend to be hunting for bargains, not expensive high-end products. If Sprint’s prepaid customers were hungry for an iPhone, there is a very low barrier to switching to another carrier with contract (it’s prepaid, after all). For Sprint to switch large numbers of them to postpaid, Sprint would (as I mentioned above) have to offer large promotions that will weaken its ability to be a going concern even more. Maybe there will be a very cheap (cheaper than current 3GS) iPhone in 2 hours, but even then the sort of people who buy whatever the cheaper than 3GS iPhone would be are probably not going to be in the market for the lucrative, expensive phone contracts.

      • Thanks for doing the research. Looking at pre/post-paid split makes it much more interesting. I’ll see what the announcement is and follow-up afterwards.

      • kevin

        Looking at the recent Verizon numbers I think are the most realistic for at least the first year of the Sprint contract. Given that iPhone owners largely upgrade to another iPhone, the recent AT&T numbers would then be better suited for the last two-three years of the Sprint contract.

  • T-Mobile is already a big Apple customer. I suspect the problem is in the 3G band that T-Mobile uses in the US. Maybe Apple could not build for their spec.

  • T-Mobile is already a big Apple customer. I suspect the problem is in the 3G band that T-Mobile uses in the US. Maybe Apple could not build for their spec.

    • davel

      Yes TMobile is odd.

      The spectrum they use and the way they use it is non standard so their 2.5G spectrum is used but the 3G needs to be specific to them. Hence a smaller market.

  • Secular Investor

    Apparently Sprint will be offering the iPhone without any data limit – unlike AT&T and Verizon which have introduced limits. Sprint may get a lot more new subscribers from the other two carriers with this unlimited download offer.

    Also there are rumours/reports that Sprint my have an exclusive on the iPhone 5 for the rest this year while AT&T and Verizon will be limited to the iPhone 4s until Q1 2012

    Also the iPhone 4s/iPhone 5 hardware may not be the biggest news at todays presentation. Respected blogger Robert Scobie suggests that there will be two more important announcements:

    “1. A deal with Facebook that will be stunning in its depth. That Steve Jobs had very little to do with, but Apple is looking for partners to keep its phones relevant against Google and Android.

    2. A real explanation of the three-screen strategy at Apple. This one will have Steve Jobs’ fingerprints all over it as Apple expands its TV hobby into a real business.”

    Scobie also refers to the possibility of SIRI assistant being introduced as well. This is AI (Artificial Intelligence) voice activated/controlled which this link describes as:

    “Apple SIRI “Assistant” Launch Will Be “World Changing Event”

    This link gives more information as to the potential of SIRI which Scobie describes as the “Future Of The Web” as significant as Apple’s introduction of the graphic GUI. After this interview Apple bought SIRI and I don’t see this technology being available on Android, Windows or any other OS. If Scobie is right it will give iOS and Macs a huge differentiating, perhaps disruptive advantage.

    The above three software enhancements/projects will greatly increase iOS advantages over Android and other OSs, potentially accelerate the sales of iOS devices, and provide deadly competition to Google search, driving another nail in the coffin of Googles dominance of search advertising..

    Apple’s 3 screen strategy will also give the iPad & iPhone a big advantage of Amazons under spec, Kindle fire, which probably does not have the graphic chips to show movies/TV Programs on a large HD screen

    • Anonymous

      Assistant is the biggest of these. It’s another one of those milestones we’ve been expecting for a long time, like 300 dpi displays.

      A kind of weird coincidence is that the “Knowledge Navigator” video that non-Jobs Apple made in 1989 or so which depicts a computer interacting with the user via Artificial Intelligence was set in the mysterious future year of 2011.

      > 3 screen

      This 3 screen BS is like a disease Scoble caught when he was at Microsoft. There must be 20 screens in the apartment I am in right now, and none of them is a TV. You couldn’t pay me to take one off your hands.

    • Anonymous

      “A deal with Facebook that will be stunning in its depth.”

      I, for one, was not stunned that Apple didn’t reward Facebook the PR of a place at an Apple event. There may be new, much closer collaboration/integration in the works, but Apple got a recent reminder (as if it doesn’t figure these things out) that other companies don’t work for you.

      And from the Facebook side, who knows how much Zuck extracted from HP in exchange for the mythical Facebook integration?

      Some stuff is about deals and other is just business as usual. A first-class app for Facebook ought to be on every mobile device and the fact that it isn’t is no testament to that company’s desire to meet customers’ needs.

  • if only the investor could have read this post yesterday.

    why are parts of this paragraph in quotes?

    The ratios are that Verizon sold iPhones at the rate of about “10% of its subscriber base per year”. AT&T has been selling at the rate of about “17% of its subs per year”. If we average these two we get about 13.6%.

    • I used quotes as suggestion of a way of reading the charts.

    • Anonymous

      Italics seems like a better choice.

    • Nathan Gallacher

      Italics would suggest emphasising the phrase. The quotes work nicely for me and my inner reading voice.

  • Abductivity

    An interesting analysis Horace.

    I would also add that by signing up Sprint for such a commitment, Apple gains handsomely by providing huge disincentives for Sprint to push alternative handsets, as AT&T and Verizon have done, in order to reduce their reliance on Apple. As a third place competitor, Sprint is using the iPhone to get back into the game.

    Their 31M commitment represents an option whose risk can best be mitigated by Sprint throwing a disproportionate proportion of organisational resources behind the distribution and marketing of iPhones. More iPhones sold up front means reduced uncertainty and therefore option risk. This will naturally come at the expense of promotional efforts otherwise allocated to competing products (e.g. Android, Blackberry and perhaps Windows). No data yet, but just a hunch that this may be the beginning of a strategy by Apple for cutting deals with 2nd and 3rd place carriers in order to expand their distribution footprint.

    whatever incentives Apple provided (e.g. Volume discounts),

    • Anonymous

      I agree with this, as it struck me more like the original Cingular deal. Cingular made a number of concessions to Apple, that Verizon, the market leader would not, as a way to catch up and modernize their image, and it worked!

    • Anonymous

      Exactly what I was thinking. If you imagine how Sprint would repond if their sales numbers are slightly too low in any given year, I’d imagine that first they’d start cutting less popular competing device lines, second drop the offering price of the iPhone or its subscription plans, and only as a last result unlock and dump product, since that would only facilitate new iPhone users to their competitors.

      In spite of all I think it’s important to keep in mind that sales numbers can’t grow explosively indefinitely. Don’t make the silly mistake the fiber optic industry made 20 years ago — all markets eventually saturate. I think how they handle the segue into a mature and stable market is the next really difficult test for Apple down the road, Horace.

      • The last time people wondered how Apple would handle the segue into an saturated market was with iPods, and their answer to that was the iPhone. They dealt with a saturated market by creating/transforming a new market that had plenty of room to grow.

        I don’t know how Apple plans to replace the iPhone, but it seems like Siri will have something to do with it.

      • Anonymous

        Quite right. But the iPhone was a relatively obvious place to go — everyone and his brother was banking on an Apple phone for years before the iPhone was actually released. What new market will they attack next? At least to me this one is much less obvious. Possibly the answer will become clearer before iPhone sales actually saturate.

    • Tim F.

      I’m unsure why anyone thinks Apple needs to provide any incentives. Sprint is on the books saying the iPhone is the reason subscribers are leaving. I wouldn’t expect any concessions or incentives insofar as Apple is “fair” (by which I mean cutthroat) in any other mid to large carrier negotiation.

  • Anonymous

    There is a whiff of Apple Doom in the WSJ article. Like Sprint is taking this gamble on this unproven phone from the fruit company of northern California. And they think they can sell how many? Hmmmmmmmm. Cuckoo!

    The thing that is really interesting to me about this is how the choice to build a nonstandard network almost killed Sprint. If they were GSM standard they would almost certainly already have the iPhone years ago. Yet here they are going out of their way just to get a phone to run on their network, with their financials in a mess. There are people in Europe who have their iPhone on a different carrier every few months. It’s not rocket surgery.

    • “There is a whiff of Apple Doom in the WSJ article.”-JohnDoey

      I didn’t pick that up at all. Perhaps I need to re-read the article. My initial impression was that the WSJ thought that Sprint was taking a desperate gamble. Even before reading Horace’s article I questioned that conclusion. It seemed to me that betting against the iPhone was far more dangerous than betting on it.

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  • Graham /Finanstankar

    Thanks for a great blog! Exactly how does a deal like this work? As I understand the article, it’s a take-or-pay contract. Isn’t there a risk that Sprint will sell off unsold iPhones at a discount if its inventories build up, which would damage Apples brand and ability to “control” retail prices?

    • Of course, we cannot know the terms of the deal, but anecdotally it’s been suggested that Apple offers a set number of iPhones per operator per year. The price is usually the same for all operators (at least the ASP has not changed regardless of the number of operators). The operator is obligated to buy the batch. If they can’t sell them then they can usually unload them on the secondary markets (they need to be unlocked and re-locked to a new operator or sold unlocked). Of course, the price they get in secondary markets is probably quite a bit lower so they do take a risk.

      Pricing to end users is determined by operators not by Apple. iPhones are offered at many price points world-wide, all the way to zero. However, the demand is quite predictable so there has not been a glut.

      One good thing about this method is that Apple can schedule production very efficiently since they get a very predictable order book. This leads to better margins.

      • Graham /Finanstankar

        Thank you for clarifying! Sure, here in Sweden all operators offer an iPhone 4 for 0:- in cash, but requiring a 24 month subscription with an “extra” monthly charge. Adding up these extra charges, the total cost of an iPhone is roughly equal across operators. The 3GS also costs 0:- but with a lower monthly charge. So that’s what I mean by Apple being able to “control” retail prices: there’s just no way to get an iPhone or an iPad at a significant discount at any retailer/operator. Which leads me to reason that Apple wouldn’t want to supply more units than demanded in a given market and would thus not sell 30m phones to Sprint if they weren’t sure that there will be a demand for them?

  • Anonymous

    Original iPhone usage on AT&T bundled almost-free data because AT&T data capacity was languishing. (Not, apparently, ability to ping small bits of data; that was unexpected by AT&T/Apple.) It took people a while to grok what a smartphone could be, then they were off to the races.

    I thought reports were of the same for WiMax: it’s in an uncomfortable middle zone where it’s not big enough to entice customers with full-coverage 4G, but not profitable enough to expand.

    The iPhone could be even MORE explosive for Sprint than it was for AT&T because it’s now a known entity, while filling a similar gap in their usage patterns. As another commenter asked, what is the risk of NOT moving to a modern user base?

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  • tmay


    Excellent as always.

    I was quite enlightened by your expansion of John Boyd’s philosophies recently, in which you demonstrated in the polar graphiics that a company could benefit from innovating faster than a competitor, shown as a smaller radii.

    I’m of the opinion that there is a corollary, which is that a company’s production model benefits with few models, few variants, longer production cycles and re-purposing models. They key to success seem to be that the company has to manage customer expectations and satisfy these with an ecosystem rather than an ever changing feature stream

    Apple continues to market the iDevices successfully this way, but I am wondering if there are any metrics that would demonstrate that Amazon’s Kindle family has a similar secret sauce, or if in fact Amazon will ultimately get dragged into a race to the bottom with Android tablets.

  • AM

    Good analysis. Here are a few things that I personally struggle with in the assumptions underlying your analysis:

    – there is no other compelling innovation in the next 4 years and the iPhone remains as attractive to users as it is today to sustain a 13%+ adoption in user base per year. When the iPhone was originally launched on AT&T, the competition were feature phones and Blackberry. With Verizon, there were Android devices you saw adoption go from 17% of base to 10%. It’s conceivable that Sprint may see 10% or less of its base go for the iPhone.

    – Sprint’s network coverage is much more limited than AT&Ts, which pales in comparison to Verizon’s footprint. Moreover, Sprint is lagging far behind its brethren in making the migration to 4G (may be able to solve for this if LightSquared can get FCC clearance). This will impact customer satisfaction in a big way as they get meaningful adoption of data heavy iPhone users who’ll likely flee to Verizon/AT&T for better coverage when the contract runs out.

    It’s possible what’s baked into Sprint’s thinking is that if the AT&T/TMO transaction goes through, AT&T will need to divest millions of subs, which Sprint can pick up and grow its base overall. If that transaction doesn’t go through, they may have an easier time picking off TMO subs based on their new iPhone 5 and all you can eat pricing plans.

    It’s also curious as to why Apple would be willing to offer Sprint iPhone 5 exclusivity for 4 years… 6 to 12 months, may be – but 4 years?!! I doubt it…

    Any way one looks at it, it doesn’t look like a sure bet. My 2 cents…

    • Anonymous

      I think you may be confused on a few points here:

      -On your first point, iPhone has gradually grown to 17% of AT&T subscriber base over the last 4 years. One could argue that the 10% with Verizon is more impressive, given the phone has only been available for 8 months on the network – remember, typical turnover in the US is 2 years.

      -Sprint was by far the first major us carrier with “4G” availability; it is widely available in all major US markets. Their mistake was in betting big on WiMax before LTE emerged as the de facto standard. If they somehow secured brief exclusivity of iPhone5 on a WiMax model, while AT&T and Verizon wait another year for LTE, this would be quite a coup.

      -Sprint would have major compatibility issues if they absorbed subscribers from the merged AT&T-Mobile. A large part of their suffering today is related to the legacy issues with absorbing Nextel subs from their last major acquisition.

      -Who said anything about 4 years? The post mentions Q1 2012 for rollout to everyone else.

    • Exclusivity? I did not read that in the WSJ article.

    • Nobody talked about 5 years of exclusivity.
      But other than that, yes, fair point on the analysis. 7 years ago, would it have been a “risky bet” or a “sure bet” to bet the company on Moto / Razr? (ok, I exaggerate, but the point is that betting your company’s future on the fact that a desirable product will remain desirable for the next 4 years IS indeed risky, regardless of the product in question; just remember how invulnerable giants like MS and Nokia seemed 4 years ago)

      • Sacto Joe

        Any other company, it’d be risky. But this is Apple we’re talking about. They’ve busted the paradigm. Shoot, they could COAST for four years, and sell 30 million through Sprint! Especially if there’s a guarantee in the next year or so to go WiMax.

      • Fruit is a thing of past as they proved in today keynote. Samung makes best phones now . period.

      • azulum

        nope—they make plastic phones.

    • davel

      As Joe mentions below Sprint was the first telco in the US to offer a 4G network.

      The value of Sprint is price. They do not have data caps and their monthly rate is lower than Verizon.

      Sprint is trying to protect its base and getting the hottest phone on the planet in their system is huge for them. As we saw with ATT and Verizon when Verizon got the iPhone the rate at which new users signed up with ATT decreased dramatically.

      As Horace is pointing out with his numbers this is not a huge risk for Sprint. Sure others may trump Apple in the next 4 years, but Sprint is looking at the here and now and clearly they are attaching their wagon to Apple since Android was not doing it for them.

    • Anonymous

      Sprint’s network coverage is exactly the same as Verizon’s as they have a roaming agreement between one another. There’s really no reason for a new, unencumbered customer to choose Verizon over Sprint at present.

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  • davel

    Since Sprint uses WiMax as its 4g mechanism I wonder if Apple will build a WiMax capable phone or perhaps Sprint will switch to LTE.

    Either way I wonder if most of the iPhone devices will be 3G only and hence not be as compelling on Sprint.

    • Anonymous

      Sprint has already announced that they are switching to LTE. All the more reason that it’s entirely sensible that Apple did not include 4G in this phone.

  • We should also not assume that Sprint is only buying the 4GS, but would also have access to any new iPhone Apple _will_ release between now and the end of the deal. Sprint should be, in essence, bought in to future innovation. Any assumption that Apple will not release anything new in the next 4 years should be looked at quite skeptically.

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  • Knircky

    Thx for providing some actual numbers and charts in a news article

  • Its no gamble, its suicide for sprint if it goes through. Apple is a thing of past, and its proved in today’s lackluster keynote. May be they should make such a deal with Samsung 🙂

    • Anonymous

      I expect time will show that you are incorrect. Apple has two tendencies which I admire: under promise & over deliver, and misdirection. The product will always perform as well or better in customers’ hands as it does in the demo. The competition sees the true performance at the same time as the customers (i.e. there are still surprises in store).

      The difference in a claimed feature such as voice command that “just works” vs. “we got it to work in development” is night-and-day. To my knowledge, no one has delivered robust voice control yet (and I think Apple believes AI is required to make it work effectively). The true value is not just in the device but rather in the whole user experience, and iCloud will be huge.

      Finally, consider that Apple is likely to have the top 3 selling phones in the world beginning soon.

    • azulum

      because a keynote makes a product. without the reality distortion field, the iphone is just metal and glass.

  • Tim F.

    Thank you. I’ve been waiting for someone to express that “bet the company” didn’t mean insane. The terms of the deal aren’t even new: AT&T, Verizon, and other carriers have had to agree to large multi-million unit commitments. It’s “bet the company” for Sprint in that it really may be their last chance, but did anyone not already know that? Of course, Apple can set the terms; of course, it is a 4 year commitment. Does anyone think Sprint might not exist in 4 years? Anyone have the same fears for Apple?

  • Tatil

    Would it not be better for Sprint to make that gamble before Verizon?

  • I’m sure there are bail out clauses, failure of commitment clauses – and the ability to renegotiate the contract under circumstances not foreseen by either party – I’m sure these concepts and clauses are not open to examine… Contract pages and points are mutuality exclusive and years of courts to “clear”…. – any comments here do not have credibility without that information – these comments are sophomoric at best and “Fox News” stuff at least.

  • Ajay S

    Horace. A very sane way looking at things. Keep the great posts coming.

    But many iPhone customers would have switched to AT&T or Verizon already, which may partly explain lower percentage of iPhone users on Verizon vs AT&T.

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