NEW YORK — Verizon Wireless made the long-awaited announcement Tuesday that it will start selling a version of the iPhone 4 on Feb. 10, giving U.S. iPhone buyers a choice of carriers for the first time.
In the United States, the iPhone has been exclusive to AT&T since it launched in 2007, frustrating many people who for one reason or another haven't wanted an AT&T phone.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've been asked and my colleagues have been asked, 'When will the iPhone work on the Verizon network?' " said Apple's chief operating officer, Tim Cook, at Tuesday's launch event.
Advance orders for existing Verizon customers will start Feb. 3. The price will be $200 or $300 with a two-year contract, about the same as the iPhone through AT&T.
Verizon has wider domestic network coverage than AT&T does, particularly for the older "3G" wireless broadband. In the interior of the country, it covers vast areas that AT&T doesn't. In the big cities of the coasts, iPhone service can be spotty because of crowding on AT&T's network.
Nonetheless, it's not clear how many people will flee from AT&T and other carriers.
AT&T activated 11.1 million iPhones in the first nine months of 2010. Analysts now expect Verizon to sell anywhere from 5 million to 13 million this year. Some buyers will be former AT&T customers, but the impact will likely be muted because most iPhone users have two-year contracts, and many are on family and employer plans, which are more difficult to switch from.
Verizon's iPhone version will work only on the carrier's current 3G network, even though the carrier has fired up a super-fast "4G" network in many cities.
Cook said the first generation of 4G phone chips would have forced some design compromises, which Apple wasn't willing to make. It wasn't waiting for the second generation, either.
"Verizon customers have told us they want the iPhone now," Cook said.
The lack of 4G means the Verizon iPhone will have much lower data speeds than AT&T's, at least in the areas where AT&T has upgraded its 3G to higher speeds. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel also said international roaming through Verizon will be very limited compared with AT&T.
This summer, AT&T could get another competitive advantage, when Apple is expected to debut a new iPhone model. Cook wouldn't say if Verizon would get it right away.
Though Verizon Wireless is the largest wireless carrier in the country, with 93.2 million subscribers, it has been losing out to AT&T in the battle to sign up high-paying smart phone subscribers because of AT&T's iPhone exclusivity. In the past few years, Verizon has promoted phones with Google's Android operating system as its alternative to the iPhone.
Verizon's iPhone 4 is identical in form and function to AT&T's but has one feature AT&T's does not: It can act as a portable WiFi "hot spot," connecting up to five laptops or other devices to Verizon's 3G network through WiFi. It's a feature that's been offered on other smart phones, usually for an added monthly fee.