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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Three of the four major wireless companies have put out new plans. They're for people who want the latest smartphone sooner. But as NPR's Dan Bobkoff reports, that doesn't mean it's a good deal.

DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: The new plans have names like Verizon Edge and AT&T Next. They essentially let you rent a phone for six months or a year and then trade it in for a new one, but there's a catch.

AVI GREENGART: You're paying essentially twice.

BOBKOFF: Avi Greengart is with Current Analysis and does some industry consulting work. T-Mobile started this craze with its Jump plan that tacks on a monthly fee for the privilege of upgrading early. But T-Mobile, the underdog, charges less for service. Not so with Verizon and AT&T.

GREENGART: You're also subscribing to a rate plan that historically had a subsidy built in.

BOBKOFF: A big-name smartphone like the Apple iPhone or Samsung Galaxy costs something like $650. Most of us never pay that much up front. Instead, we plop down $200 for the phone and sign a two-year contract. Baked into our monthly fees is about $20 a month that recoups the full cost of the phone.

But in the new Verizon and AT&T plans, you're paying that $20, and you're paying the full cost of the phone in monthly installments. That's why in many cases, the carrier comes out ahead.

GREENGART: Yeah. It certainly looks like AT&T has developed its plan in such a way that it doesn't lose any money.

BOBKOFF: It's a similar story with Verizon, but when I asked spokesmen for Verizon and AT&T about this, I got remarkably similar answers.

DAVID SAMBERG: It's about the choice.

MARK SIEGEL: Next is all about giving our customers more choices.

BOBKOFF: That's David Samberg from Verizon and Mark Siegel from AT&T. Both say the old-style plans aren't going away. But when I suggested that these new early upgrade plans leave customers to pay both the full price of the phone and the baked-in fee, neither would go into any details about their pricing. AT&T.

SIEGEL: Many things go into the way we price our services.

BOBKOFF: Verizon.

SAMBERG: What you're paying for the monthly price plan, there's a lot to that.

BOBKOFF: Both then went on to talk about how great their networks are. It's expensive to upgrade cell towers for new technology every few years. And there's this. ComScore data show nearly 60 percent of Americans now have smartphones, a huge increase over five years. That growth inevitably will slow as the market saturates.

Horace Dediu, an independent analyst at Asymco, says these new plans are a way to try to preserve profits and the status quo as long as possible.

HORACE DEDIU: And that means often adding complexity, adding some illusion.

BOBKOFF: But Dediu says he doesn't fault the carriers. For one thing, customers have shown time and again that they'd rather pay less up front and more over time.

DEDIU: When you give a simple but initially expensive option, people tend to not take it.

BOBKOFF: And that option actually exists. Today, you could pay the full price for a phone and then sign up for a no-contract prepaid plan and save hundreds of dollars over two years. But you don't see the carriers advertising that heavily. Dan Bobkoff, NPR News.

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