Apple Wireless? iPhone, iPad Giant Might Threaten AT&T, Verizon With Wireless Services

AT&T and Verizon Wireless might be in for some cutthroat competition from an unlikely source: Apple.

The iPhone maker will soon begin providing mobile-phone services directly to its vast customer base, wireless industry strategist Whitey Bluestein predicts.

Speaking at the Informa MVNO Industry Summit in Barcelona, Bluestein said Apple would commence its wireless journey by offering mobile data plans that are bundled with iPads. That move would deviate from the current practice of selling the iPads with AT&T and Verizon data plans, he said.

Next, Apple plans to offer its iPhone customers activation, data and international roaming plans through the iTunes store, said Bluestein, a former executive with MCI Communications.

He also predicted Apple will provide voice, data and messaging plans directly to its vast base of iPhone customers on an a la carte basis, reflecting an alternative to their current mobile operator.

Google will follow Apple, Bluestein predicted, offering wireless data services directly to its tablet customers.

Bluestein’s prediction, if it comes to fruition, cut spell major trouble for the biggest U.S. wireless operators. Tens of millions of U.S. wireless customers own an iPhone and might consider defecting to Apple when their contracts end. AT&T alone had 26 million iPhone customers at the end of last year, according to an estimate from BTIG Research.

Bluestein indicated Apple has all the building blocks for a successful wireless business: a leading brand, vast distribution through 363 Apple Stores and digital content including applications, music and video.

In 2006, Apple filed a patent application detailing how it would offer wireless service directly to its customers using the networks of multiple wireless operators, Bluestein said.

So why hasn’t Apple entered the mobile-phone business? Bluestein cited the gigantic handset subsidies that mobile operators pay the company for each iPhone. Those subsidies average $381 per device, according to the strategist.

Bluestein noted that Apple is sitting on a pile of dough and could seize the wireless opportunity at any moment. Apple lists total assets of $150.9 billion, including $10.1 billion in cash and equivalents and $100 billion in short-term and long-term marketable securities.

When contacted Tuesday afternoon by email, Apple’s media relations team did not immediately respond to Bluestein’s comments.

Prior to his current position, Bluestein has worked at Visage Mobile, NorthPoint Communications and MCI Communications Corp., according to his bio. At MCI in the 1990s, he served as vice president of wireless strategy and development where he created the company’s wireless virtual network strategy.

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