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Will AT&T iPhone users really defect for Verizon?

Will they stay or will they go?

That’s the big question AT&T executives are likely asking themselves about the millions of iPhone customers who may consider leaving the operator once the popular smartphone is offered on other carrier networks in the U.S.

While AT&T has not said when its exclusive deal for the iPhone ends, the company has been preparing shareholders for a day when the iconic device will be available to its competitors. Rumor has it that Verizon Wireless, AT&T’s chief competitor, will get a version of the iPhone in January.

A recent survey by the market research firm Morpace found that 34 percent of those surveyed who already own an AT&T iPhone are waiting to upgrade their phones until the iPhone becomes available on another carrier. And about 47 percent said they’d at least consider moving over to Verizon for the iPhone. About a quarter of all AT&T subscribers said they were somewhat or very likely to switch to Verizon for an iPhone.

Morpace’s sample was relatively small. Out of 1,000 respondents, only about 100 were current AT&T iPhone subscribers, but Jay Heyboer, vice president of technology and Advanced analytics at Morpace, said the findings are still statistically valid.

The results aren’t too surprising given the flood of bad press AT&T has gotten over the past couple of years. iPhone users around the country, particularly in urban areas, have flooded the Web with complaints about the iPhone’s slow 3G speeds and dropped calls. Preorder problems with the iPhone 4 didn’t help AT&T’s reputation either as millions of potential customers were shut out of ordering the phone ahead of its launch in June.

One thing seems to be clear: iPhone owners are very loyal to the iPhone and Apple brand. About 77 percent of current iPhone owners say they intend to buy another Apple phone, according to a recent survey conducted by the Yankee Group.

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