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Consumers Embrace Phone-Finance Plans

NEW YORK – Consumers have embraced cellular carriers’ phone-financing programs, according to a survey by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP).

And so has AT&T.

Under the plans, consumers pay full price up front for an unsubsidized phone, or pay monthly to purchase an unsubsidized phone, in return for no contract. Before the phone is paid off, users can also trade the phone in for an unsubsidized upgrade after a certain period of time.

AT&T attributed rising fourth-quarter margins to lower year-over-year sales of smartphones, which are heavily subsidized, and the impact of its Next trade-up program. In the quarter, 15 percent of postpaid smartphones activated on the AT&T network, or 1 million, were purchased under the Next program, with that percentage growing toward the end of the quarter to 20 percent, the company said.

In surveying consumers, CIRP found that at Sprint, the percentage of eligible customers taking advantage of the finance option was 18 percent during the July-December 2013 period, while at AT&T, the number was 16 percent. At Verizon, it was 13 percent. By definition, 100 percent of eligible T-Mobile customers participate in finance plans because the carrier sells only unsubsidized phones, whereas the other carriers offer consumers the option, CIRP said.

Including T-Mobile, 31 percent of eligible customers participated in a phone financing plan during the period, CIRP said.

To be eligible for phone financing at AT&T and Verizon, customers must buy a new phone from the carrier’s store or website, and at Sprint they must buy the phone from a Sprint store, CIRP said. Indirect retailers including Best Buy, Target, Amazon and Apple do not yet offer these carriers’ financing plans, CIRP said.

T-Mobile’s financing plans are available through many indirect retailers but not through national retailers, T-Mobile has said.