Tech Rumor of the Day: AT&T Pays to Play - TheStreet

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

is urging Wall Street to think about it as more than the

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPhone.

Executives on an earnings call with analysts Thuresday declined to reveal when the exclusive iPhone sales agreement ends. It's

next June

, for those keeping score.

But instead of fussing about the future of a phone deal that accounts for nearly 9 million, or 11% of its 79.6 million subscribers, Ma Bell pointed out that it has loads of other smartphones owned by family plan members and business users.

AT&T says this emphasizes the "stickiness of this base."

Apple Full Steam Ahead

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The translation: AT&T is a leader in the smartphone race against rivals

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

,

Sprint

(S) - Get Report

and

Deutsche Telecom's

(DT) - Get Report

T-Mobile

. And smartphone customers are loyal.

The alternative read: Smartphone customers might be more loyal to their phones than to their carrier.

The big loyalty test will come as early as next year if and when a new version of the iPhone goes to Verizon, you could say.

And until then, AT&T is shelling out an estimated $300 per iPhone, putting a

drag on profits

.

AT&T had hopes of low 40% margins on operating income before depreciation and amortization or OIBDA. But the company took a big hit on iPhone expenses, which dragged margins down to 38.3%.

Executives on the call said the iPhone success may continue to crimp profits this year. "If iPhone volumes are strong in the next quarters, it's going to be more of a challenge to drive margins up over 40%."

The takeaway there is that AT&T will enjoy hot, though less profitable, iPhone growth until it loses the iPhone. And then, to ease the shock of growth's sudden departure, margins will at least look better.