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Is the Sprint iPhone a Better Bet?

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If you sell it, will they come? Third-place carrier Sprint certainly hopes so.  The Wall Street Journal reports that the carrier will join AT&T and Verizon in offering the much-anticipated iPhone 5 when it launches this fall.

The news is clearly a win for Sprint: analysts are already talking about the potential for bumper fourth-quarter sales. It’s a great opportunity for the carrier, which has lagged behind Verizon and AT&T, to grab back some of its former customers who left to get the iPhone elsewhere, says Todd Day, an industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan. “Ultimately, it gives them a level playing field,” he says. (Sprint declined to comment on reports that it is getting the iPhone.)

But will iPhone owners – current and future — benefit? Sprint customers will, if they want an iPhone without the hassle of switching carriers. For everyone else, the benefits are a little less certain.

From a price perspective, “it almost doesn’t matter which carrier you have,” says Alex Goldfayn, a consumer electronics expert who hosts the nationally syndicated radio show “The Technology Tailor Minute.” Apple sets strict pricing controls that will keep handset prices the same at all three, and competition will prompt the carriers into near-identical plan pricing to avoid waves of defecting customers.

Right now, owning an AT&T iPhone costs $84.99 per month — $5 less than Verizon’s monthly rate — for 450 minutes, 2GB of data and unlimited text messages. Sprint currently offers 450 minutes and unlimited data and messaging for $69.99, but that’s likely to change once the iPhone launches, Goldfayn says: iPhone users tend to use a lot of data (think streaming video via Netflix or Hulu), so it’s not in the interest of the carrier to keep data pricing low. Verizon phased out its unlimited data plan within months of introducing the iPhone. A Sprint spokesman says the carrier will continue offering its unlimited plans, but will “monitor our plans as they relate to the marketplace.”

Where you live could be the bigger iPhone factor.”Some carriers are better than others in specific metropolitan areas or regions,” Day says, “and everyone has an opinion.” Texas customers tend to be Sprint loyalists, for example, while the Northeast loves Verizon (and loves to hate AT&T). Testing call quality before you switch can be a tricky business, but it’s doable. Sites like BillShrink.com gauge signal strength for the various carriers in your zip code, and carriers also offer at least two weeks for a penalty-free cancellation of new service. Keep in mind, too, that an influx of iPhone users has slowed speeds — if your Sprint connection isn’t great now, there’s the chance that it could be even slower come the fall.

Update, 2:30pm: This story has been updated to include a comment from Sprint.

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