AT&T CEO: iPhone 5 may be so popular, people will pay full price

CEO Randall Stephenson tells analyst conference that a lot of people may be willing to go outside their upgrade cycle to get the new device.

The iPhone 5 in hand.
The iPhone 5 is selling in record numbers. James Martin/CNET

The iPhone 5 may prove so popular that many people may willing to upgrade early and pay full price for the device, the chief executive of AT&T said.

Randall Stephenson, speaking today during an analyst conference, said anecdotally that the carrier is seeing "a lot" of people show willingness to buy the new Apple devices outside of their upgrade cycle. That means they pay $649 for the 16GB version of the phone versus the $199 it costs when subsidized for AT&T contract customers.

But Stephenson cautioned he doesn't yet have any data, and it's still too early to tell how many people will pay full price. But he said he should know in a couple weeks what sales are like.

"This continues to be a product that has incredible demand, and people are willing to pay to get it," he said.

The iPhone 5, which hits stores Friday, is one of the main devices expected to drive smartphone sales in coming months. AT&T said earlier this week that the iPhone 5 has sold faster than any previous model of the Apple smartphone.

Stephenson today said consumers continue to buy wireless devices despite some worries about the economy. He expects AT&T to meet its goal of selling about 25 million smartphones this year -- flat from last year -- even though sales were tracking below that level before the iPhone 5 was released.

Stephenson also said the new shared data plan the company recently launched may not be AT&T's long-term model, but it's closer than previous plans the carrier has introduced. In addition, Stephenson said consumers and businesses are paying for bigger data buckets than AT&T expected, opting for levels such as 10 GB instead of lower amounts.

"In an LTE world where we consume more data, that's a good situation for AT&T," he said.

Other areas where AT&T sees opportunities in the future include automobiles that connect to wireless networks, the connected home, mobile payments and health care.

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