AT&T wireless subscribers hit 95.5 million, besting Verizon

Carrier reports best-ever subscriber gains, just before its iPhone exclusive deal ends

AT&T reported Thursday it had 95.5 million wireless subscribers at the end of 2010, putting it ahead of Verizon Wireless, which reported earlier this week that it had 94.1 million.

AT&T said it added more than 2.8 million wireless subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2010, it's best-ever increase. It also had 8.9 million wireless subscriber additions for all of 2010, another record.

The two biggest U.S. wireless carriers are in a constant battle for subscribers , even as the market for new smartphone and other wireless users becomes saturated. They have traded the first place spot before, and newer tablet computers coming to market as well as Verizon's sale of the iPhone 4 starting Feb. 10 will keep the horse race alive. In the third quarter, Verizon had 93.2 million wireless subscribers, ahead of AT&T's 92.8 million.

AT&T was expected to finish 2010 ahead of Verizon in subscribers as AT&T's exclusive for the iPhone nears an end. Verizon will sell the iPhone 4 on its CDMA/EV-DO network and estimates it will sell 11 million iPhones through 2011.

It's not clear how many new subscribers Verizon will gain from AT&T because of the Verizon iPhone, or if Verizon's biggest gains with iPhones will come from elsewhere, including Verizon customers moving up from using less sophisticated phones.

The fallout over AT&T's losing its exclusivity with the iPhone could be 10 per cent or more, analysts said, but it won't happen all at once since customers might wait until their two-year agreements expire. A recent ChangeWave survey of 4,000 U.S. consumers said 26 per cent of iPhone customers would leave AT&T for Verizon, citing dropped calls and poor reception on AT&T's network.

AT&T is holding an earnings call with analysts later Thursday and the question of subscribers losses over iPhone is expected to come up.

AT&T also said its revenues reached $31.4 billion in the fourth quarter, up 2.1 per cent over the fourth quarter in 2009. In wireless, revenues grew by 9.9 per cent in the fourth quarter. The carrier focused on non-iPhone device sales in its quarterly highlights as well, noting its iPad and Android -based tablets increased by 442,000.

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