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AT&T chief: iPhone won't be exclusive forever

Randall Stephenson says that overall the company's relationship with Apple is strong, but that it isn't reasonable to think it will have the exclusive in perpetuity.

PASADENA, Calif.--It's not realistic to believe AT&T will have an exclusive on the iPhone forever, CEO Randall Stephenson said Thursday.

"There will be a day when you are not exclusive with the iPhone," Stephenson said, speaking at Fortune's Brainstorm: Tech conference here. However, he declined to get into details on the company's negotiations with Apple.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at the Fortune Brainstorm conference
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson at the Fortune Brainstorm conference Fortune

The issue of whether--and more likely when--AT&T loses the exclusive on the iPhone has become a major issue for the company and its investors.

"On balance, I think it works really, really well--maybe as well as any strategic partnership we have," Stephenson said.

Asked by Fortune's Stephanie Mehta whether he is completely satisfied with the nature of the relationship, Stephenson quipped: "I don't know if I could get my wife to say that about me, so I don't think I could say that about a business partner."

AT&T's earnings report early Thursday showed the company taking a hit from the expense of the new iPhone 3GS. "I'd like to pay less for the handset, go figure," he said.

But, he said, it's an investment that ultimately yields customers who spend more each month and who are much less likely to change cell phone service providers.

Stephenson again acknowledged issues with the quality of the company's wireless network but said that all carriers have areas with weak service.

"There's no greater cause of churn than network quality," he said, adding that "we have the lowest churn in the company's history."