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Friday, February 13, 2009, 06:30 am PT (09:30 am ET)

Apple, AT&T mulling tiered data plans for next iPhone - report

Apple and its US wireless partner AT&T are discussing plans to potentially offer next-gen iPhone customers more data plan choices amid fears of losing their business during a time of economic hardship, according to a new report.

In a research note to clients Friday, Kaufman Brothers analyst Shaw Wu said he believes the current plan pricing is too high, which has resulted in some customers balking at the required $70+ monthly fees and taxes just to upgrade to an iPhone. The current data plan is $30 while enterprise customers pay $40.

"Our sources indicate what's holding up new iPhones are not technology issues but rather fine-tuning of its go-to-market strategy," Wu wrote. "Due to fear of lower profits, [AT&T] is more open to developing tiered data plans that fit more in line with today's environment."

Wu doesn't mention any specific possible plans, but he does discuss some new possible models of the iPhone.

"Apple, along with AT&T and its carrier partners, is in the midst of figuring out how to position a second and potentially even a third iPhone model that would be complimentary and minimize cannibalization with the current 3G iPhone," he wrote.

The analyst believes Apple will follow a strategy similar to what the company did with the iPod, expanding the market with more choices. Citing sources, Wu predicts several iPhone models with differing feature sets, adding the possibility of a low-cost voice, e-mail, messaging-only plan with no Internet on what he referred to as an "iPod phone".

His supply chain checks supposedly point to three iPhone models at "a fairly advanced development stage" that await the green light from Apple.

"One of these has a smaller, approximately 2.8-inch screen, but true to Apple's word, we believe it will be less likely to see the light of day in the near term as it appears that software and thus feature sets will be the key differentiator as opposed to screen size, like with iPods and Macs," he told clients.

Wu becomes the latest to disregard acting chief executive Tim Cook's comments about low-end iPhones last month.

"You know us, we're not going to play in the low-end voice phone business," Cook said. "That's not who we are. That's not why we're here. We'll let somebody do that, our goal is not to be the unit share leader in the phone industry. It is to build the best phone."

Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster predicted a family of iPhones, Mike Abramsky of RBC has twice talked up an entry-level iPod phone, and now there is Wu. Of course, the three are not alone.

Wu maintains his $120 price target for shares of Apple, reiterating his belief that the Cupertino-based company is "one of the better names to own in this tough macroeconomic environment."