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Tuesday, May 06, 2008, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Apple to offer iPhone in Italy through multiple carriers

Apple Inc. will apparently abandon its exclusive carrier model for iPhone sales alongside the release of a 3G model, as two Italian carriers have issued statements Tuesday claiming rights to distribute the iPhone later this year.

On the heels of an announcement by Vodafone in which the multi-national provider said it had reached an agreement to sell the iPhone in Italy and nine other countries later this year, Telecom Italia is claiming it will also soon offer the handset to its customers.

"Telecom Italia announces today that it has signed an agreement with Apple to bring the iPhone to Italy within the year," the carrier said in a one line statement.

The announcements appear to signal an end to the exclusive agreements forged ahead of the initial iPhone launch last year, which have thus far proven successful only in the United States.

Reports out of Europe have routinely suggested that sales of the inaugural Apple handset in the region have been lackluster for a variety of reasons, including a lack of 3G compatibility, steep pricing, and limited carrier options.

A recent report from the Spanish-language business paper Cinco Dias stated that the Cupertino-based handset maker was having doubts about its exclusive carrier model after witnessing poor sales in Europe and watching customers unlock the phones themselves for use on unsanctioned carriers.

The paper went on to cite sources close to ongoing negotiations as saying that Apple was mulling the prospect of selling the iPhone through multiple providers in Latin American nations. It added that discussions with Telefonica in Spain have been ongoing for months, and correctly predicted that Apple would use Italy as a testbed by offering the handset through more than just Telecom Italia.

Though neither of the announcements on Tuesday specifically mentioned a 3G version of the iPhone, the consensus amongst insiders, analysts, and pundits alike is that Apple has been aligning deals for expanded distribution ahead of the next-generation handset.

Back in February, the iPhone maker offered the first hints that it would forgo exclusivity with carriers in favor broadening distribution when chief operating officer Tim Cook stated during a Goldman Sachs investment conference that the company was "not married to any business model," but was instead wed only to "shipping the best phones in the world."

Of interest, RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky recently met with members of Apple's leadership and followed up with a research note Monday stating that the company was considering a move to allow subsidized pricing, diminishing carrier exclusivity, and support global unlocked iPhone sales going forward.