PORTLAND, Ore. — Sprint Nextel will offer Apple's iPhone next month with unlimited data service plans to distinguish itself from rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless, Bloomberg News reported.
Sprint, the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier, plans to begin selling the device in mid October under a deal with Apple for the next model, the iPhone 5, according to Bloomberg, which cited people who asked not to be identified.
Becoming the country's only operator to offer the device with unlimited data service for a flat fee may help Sprint draw customers from AT&T and Verizon, which already carry the phone.
Sprint is struggling to compete against larger rivals and has lost money for 15 consecutive quarters. The addition of the iPhone to Sprint's lineup will help it win customers, said Matthew Thornton, an analyst at Avian Securities.
"It's a competitive disadvantage if your two larger competitors have the iPhone and you don't," Thornton said in an interview. "Getting the iPhone closes that gap."
Michelle Leff Mermelstein, a spokeswoman for Sprint, said the company doesn't comment on products or services it hasn't announced. Natalie Harrison, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment on rumors or speculation.
Sprint already offers unlimited data plans for smart phones such as Research In Motion's BlackBerry and HTC's Evo, which runs on Google's Android operating system. Sprint's unlimited voice and data service costs $99.99 a month.
AT&T and Verizon charge for data service on top of voice service plans. AT&T, which has unlimited voice service for $69.99 a month, offers 200 megabytes of data for $15 a month, 2 gigabytes of data for $25 a month, or 4 gigabytes of data for $45 a month. Verizon's data plans for the iPhone start at $30 a month for 2 gigabytes and rise to $80 for 10 gigabytes, in addition to unlimited voice service for $69.99 a month.
Unlimited data plans are a draw because they allow customers to surf the Web, share photos or watch videos as much as they want.
They're particularly valuable for people who use mobile devices for applications such as Netflix's movie service or Pandora Media's streaming music.
"The advantage of unlimited is, it's cheaper for the big users," said Peter Rhamey, an analyst at Bank of Montreal. The plans may draw other customers because "people don't like bill shock," he said. "Consumers will pay a premium for unlimited."
Apple's iPhone has proved to be a valuable recruitment tool for rivals: Of the 5.6 million smartphones AT&T sold in the second quarter, the device accounted for 3.6 million. A quarter of the subscribers who bought the iPhone were new to AT&T, the company said.