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AT&T data changes seen as benefit for BlackBerry over iPhone

AT&T's removal of unlimited data plans for new iPhone customers hurts Apple's iPhone, despite the lower prices, and helps competitor Research in Motion's line of BlackBerry handsets, one prominent analyst believes.

Facing increasing demands on its network, AT&T "blinked" first, Mike Abramsky with RBC Capital Markets said Wednesday. Now, the carrier's announced move a $25 monthly fee for 2GB of data (a change from unlimited plans at $30 a month) could be followed in kind by Verizon.

If Verizon does follow suit, it would follow a pattern seen earlier this year, when AT&T took only hours to match a $30 price drop for unlimited voice plans.

Abramsky said that AT&T's change could expand the market for smartphones by offering cheaper data plans to attract more entry-level users. The implementation of a restrictive cap would also allow carriers to introduce more data consumptive services with less fear of a tax on the network. AT&T's 2GB cap in particular will allow the carrier to "clamp down" on users who use a disproportionate amount of bandwidth.

The data plan changes will also be a benefit to users of RIM's BlackBerry line of smartphones, which typically use much less data than iPhone users, Abramsky said.

"In Canada and Europe, price-sensitive smartphone customers already do more on BlackBerry under data caps (iPhone avg. 250-500MB/mo. vs. RIM at 50MB)," Abramsky wrote in a note to investors. "Now, as RIM is poised to unveil BlackBerry 6 on new smartphones with improved browsing and UI, BlackBerry users may realize they can 'do more' under caps vs. iPhone (e.g. 3x browsing) —while some iPhone/Android users may suffer from 'bill shock' if they breach caps unintentionally (particularly business users, who tend to use more data."

Abramsky said AT&T could increase its support for BlackBerry, because RIM's devices use less bandwidth than the iPhone. He said it's also possible that features like video chat could become more expensive for iPhone users, while AT&T could offer more attractive pricing for those who use a BlackBerry.

Heavy bandwidth use by iPhone owners led The New York Times to call Apple's handset the "Hummer of cellphones," comparing it to the gas-guzzling vehicle. AT&T has made efforts to improve its network over the last year, but even Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said this week that he believes the wireless carrier "could do better" in some respects. Even Jobs admitted that AT&T deals with "way more data traffic than anyone else" due to the iPhone.

AT&T has hinted for some time that changes to its unlimited data plans were on the horizon, as the company has faced network issues and bandwidth problems. The carrier has sought ways to encourage the heaviest bandwidth consumers to reduce or modify their usage of the AT&T network.