Other telecom analysts, notably Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research, have been far more alarmed by the interplay between iPhone subsidies and wireless margins... and with good reason.

Amid a mid-2012 telecom stock surge that put Verizon and AT&T among the top performers on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Moffett argued iPhone subsidies could turn wireless margins negative, potentially disproving a fundamental shift in telecom profitability.

While a later than expected rollout of the iPhone 5 has buffered carriers from the full-impact of handset subsidies, Moffett's analysis appears to be playing out in persistent earnings downgrades for Verizon and AT&T.

While Verizon and AT&T are up over the past year, shares are down nearly 10% in the past three months, as investors brace for an iPhone-based earnings hit.

The real question for analysts like Moffett and wireless investors to ponder is whether after a iPhone subsidy hit plays out in fourth quarter telecom earnings, industry leaders like Verizon and AT&T come back into favor and become a safe holding for investors, as they were in 2012.

In the wake of a fourth quarter margin decline, analysts like Schildkraut of Evercore appears to be more optimistic about the benefits of long-term wireless growth profiles of Verizon and AT&T. Will investors and analysts agree?

The debate on absolute subscriber growth and cyclical margin pressures takes on a new dimension as lagging carriers like Sprint ( S), MetroPCS ( PCS) continue to lose customers, but prepare for a revival in competition. For instance, in a late December interview with TheStreet, Moffett of Bernstein Research highlighted the prospect Sprint's new owner's initiate a wireless pricing war as a key 2013 risk outside of iPhone subsidies.

Meanwhile, demand for Google ( GOOG)-Android powered handsets, and similar rollouts by Microsoft ( MSFT) and Research In Motion ( RIMM) could eventually undercut Apple's power to negotiate carrier subsidies, as some Apple bears argue.

Verizon reports earnings on Jan. 22, with analysts expecting 51.9 cents a share in adjusted profit on $29.7 billion in revenue, according to analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg. AT&T reports on Jan. 24 with analysts expecting an adjusted profit of 46.8 cents a share in $32.2 billion in revenue, the Bloomberg data show.

-- Written by Antoine Gara in New York

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