January 13, 2011, 4:34 PM — Nobody knows for sure how many iPhone owners will abandon AT&T once Verizon begins selling Apple's popular smartphone next month. But a new survey by ChangeWave Research should have AT&T plenty worried.
Of the current iPhone owners surveyed, 26 percent said they'll dump AT&T for Verizon, which is set to end AT&T's 3 1/2-year run as the exclusive U.S. carrier to sell the Apple device starting Feb. 10.
(Also see: Is the Verizon iPhone deal a disaster for AT&T?)
So what does that mean in terms of hard numbers? Last week comScore estimated that in November there were 61.5 million smartphone subscribers in the U.S., of which 25 percent owned iPhones. That's a few more than 15.4 million AT&T iPhone subscribers. Let's say AT&T signed up some more in December, even as rumors were swirling that Verizon would be getting the iPhone, and call it 16 million or even 17 million. (Obviously I'm just estimating here.)
If you assume those numbers, and assume the survey respondents make good on their intentions, that's 4.2 million to 4.4 million AT&T iPhone customers who will flock to Verizon. And two in five of current iPhone subscribers said they'd switch within the first three months that Verizon begins selling the device. That'd be about 1.7 million iPhone owners ditching AT&T by spring.
But there's more. Sixteen percent of all AT&T subscribers -- not just iPhone owners, but all AT&T subscribers -- said they would switch when Verizon got the iPhone. With about 93 million total wireless subscribers, that would mean 14.9 million intend to abandon AT&T for Verizon because of the Apple smartphone.
Another 23 percent of AT&T's subscribers said they "don't know" if they'd switch to Verizon for the CDMA iPhone, with 60 percent saying they wouldn't.
The bottom line is that 40 percent of its wireless subscribers profess no loyalty to AT&T, based on the ChangeWave survey. Two-year contracts and early termination fees be damned, AT&T has a problem.
Chris Nerney writes about the business side of technology market strategies and trends, legal issues, leadership changes, mergers, venture capital, IPOs and technology stocks. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisNerney.