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Concerns over iPhone activation totals at AT&T & Verizon seen as overblown

Investors on Tuesday expressed concern that iPhone activations at AT&T had dropped 43 percent quarter over quarter, but one analysis notes that iPhone activations in the U.S. have historically dropped the quarter after a product launch.

Apple stock took a hit Tuesday morning ahead of the company's own earnings report, which will come after markets close in the afternoon. The drop was attributed to carrier AT&T's earnings, in which the company announced it activated 4.3 million iPhones in the first quarter of calendar 2012, representing 78 percent of all smartphones activated at AT&T.

But the 4.3 million iPhones activated at AT&T was also a decrease of 43 percent from the previous holiday quarter, during which the iPhone 4S was launched in the U.S.

While some investors have focused on that quarter-over-quarter drop, analyst Brian White with Topeka Capital Markets issued a note to investors Tuesday morning to dispel some of those concerns. He said it's more accurate to analyze AT&T's iPhone activations the quarter after a new iPhone launch, rather than focus on what appears at first blush to be a "soft" number.

White estimates that AT&T accounted for 14.5 percent of all iPhone shipments in the March quarter, down from 20.5 percent of shipments during the holiday 2011 quarter. AT&T's estimated share was pushed down because the iPhone 4S became available in more than 75 countries by the end of calendar 2011.

During 2011, AT&T accounted for an average of just over 18 percent of total smartphone shipments. But the iPhone 4S, which launched last October, was also the fastest international roll-out Apple had ever accomplished with a new iPhone model.

White noted that AT&T's percentage contribution of total iPhone shipments "fell substantially during the first full quarter" after both the iPhone 3GS launch in 2009, and the iPhone 4 debut in 2010. Specifically, in 2009, AT&T's share fell from 43 percent of iPhone shipments in the launch quarter to 35 percent in the following quarter, while a similar drop from 37 percent to 25 percent occurred in 2010.

"Due to the decline in U.S. iPhone activations after a launch and the ramp of international markets, we believe it is difficult for investors to read much into either AT&T or Verizon's... iPhone activations to estimate total iPhone shipments for this March quarter," White wrote.

He sees AAPL stock as an "attractive" option for investors given the pullback that has occurred in recent weeks. White had also said in a separate note issued on Monday that he believes recent losses for Apple have just been "profit taking" by investors, rather than any legitimate concerns over the company's business.