Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Are Android Users Subsidizing iPhone Users at Verizon Wireless?

Subsidies Verizon Wireless is paying to entice consumers to buy Apple iPhones might also be penalizing Android devices, some now argue. Though top Android devices cost as much as Apple iPhones, high-end Android devices often sell for prices $100 to $200 higher than the iPhone.

In other words, Verizon is trying to recoup some of its cash flow and operating margin by making Android handset users pay more for their devices than Apple iPhone users.

Verizon is betting that buyers who want the high-end Android phones will pay, so they're marking those models up.

John Hodulik, an analyst at UBS AG has estimated that the iPhone subsidy could be as high as $400 per iPhone customer. If 13 million of the devices get sold in a year that implies a which $5.2 billion hit to earnings. Some argue that devices should not be subsidized, since doing so means consumers have to sign contracts. But iPhone subsidies are quite a big expense for firms such as Verizon Wireless.

From at least one perspective, contracts and subsidies offer value for consumers and service providers, with users getting devices they want at $400 lower prices, while service providers can smooth out recurring service revenues and reduce customer churn.

Apple has set a standard entry price of its newest smartphones at $199, with higher end models available with more storage. This year however, Verizon has set a new contract price for its high end Android phones at $299.

The implications are clear enough. If you like high-end Android devices, do not buy them from Verizon.

Both the Motorola Droid RAZR and the just released Google-branded Samsung Galaxy Nexus are $299 with a two year Verizon contract, and both are listed as costing $649 without a contract.

In contrast, Apple's 16GB iPhone 4S is offered for only $199, even though it costs the same $649 without a contact. Apple is getting a $450 subsidy, compared to just $350 for Android licensees Motorola and Samsung.

Verizon's $199 Android phones, including the Samsung Droid Charge, Motorola Droid 3 and Droid Bionic, cost $499, $459 and $589 respectively without a contract, making their subsidies worth just $300 to $390, or $150 to $60 lower than Apple's, one might note.  

The closest Verizon's phones currently come to an iPhone subsidy appears to be the HTC Thunderbolt, which is being offered for $149, a $420 subsidy compared to its $569 full retail price. However, this involves a special promotional discount of $100, making the "sale" price of Android models still higher than regular price of any of Verizon's iPhones. Verizon Wireless can do what it wants, of course. But consumers should also do what they want.

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