T-Mobile Next to Carry the iPhone, Says Analyst

Kaufman Bros analyst Shaw Wu threw his hat in the ring on Thursday with an answer to one of the mobile industry’s favorite questions of the season: Which U.S. carrier will be next to get their hands on Apple’s popular iPhone?

According to Wu, the answer is likely T-Mobile USA, a distant fourth in the cutthroat mobile service market.

This would be a surprise, as most of the rumors have surrounded Verizon Wireless, a Verizon Communications and Vodafone Group Plc venture, because that company is the market leader and has made no secret of its desire to get the Apple phone on its shelves.

But Wu says T-Mobile USA may be the best candidate to get the phone first because it uses the same network technology as AT&T, currently the exclusive U.S. iPhone provider. While Verizon Wireless has more customers than T-Mobile USA, its network runs on a technology that Apple currently does not support. Interestingly enough, Wu said, the newest version of iPhone would also work on 2,100-MHz frequency of wireless spectrum, which T-Mobile USA uses.

“While the general consensus is around Verizon (which we believe will happen eventually) we continue to believe that T-Mobile USA is the most likely candidate given its use of similar cellular technology (to) AT&T.”

Another factor in T-Mobile USA’s favor is that it needs the iPhone badly enough that it may be most ready to agree to any kind of demands Apple cares to put on the table. Verizon Wireless keeps adding customers.

But at T-Mobile USA, once the growth engine of parent Deutsche Telekom, customers have recently been fleeing to rivals both bigger and smaller. ”T-Mobile views the iPhone as key in winning back lost customers and as such could be more likely to agree to Apple’s terms,” Wu said.

Even before its public embarrassment on Wednesday over a wireless security breach that affected uses of Apple’s iPad, AT&T had conceded in public that its exclusive rights to iPhone won’t last forever . Some analysts debated if this would drive Apple away from AT&T sooner rather than later.

Since the operator derives so many of its new customers from iPhonemania it is likely to do everything it can to keep the device for itself. But ultimately, the ball is in Apple’s court. And while analysts expect the latest iPhone to do well at AT&T, they believe Apple has a very good reason for ending it monogamous affair with AT&T.

“We believe Apple ultimately needs an additional US carrier to sustain its high growth rates,” Wu said.

As for T-Mobile USA, a spokesman said (not surprisingly): “We’d welcome the opportunity to offer the iPhone to our customers.”