If you've been counting down the days until you can get a new smartphone on your contract, you'll have to wait just a little longer, because AT&T is extending the waiting period for phone upgrades from 20 to 24 months.
AT&T announced in a blog post it is raising the threshold for subsidized handset replacements from 20 months to two years. The restriction applies to new and existing customers whose contracts end in March 2014 or later. Fortunately, this means that most current customers can still get an upgrade this year before the change takes effect.
"This aligns device upgrade eligibility with our standard two-year wireless agreement and it applies to any customer whose agreement expires in March 2014 or later," AT&T said in the blog post announcing the move. AT&T will still offer partial discounts when you had a phone for six months or longer and you want to sign a new two-year contract.
AT&T is not alone in the change. Verizon has also announced in April that it is changing course from a 20-month to a two-year upgrade cycle from January 2014. Verizon's change applies to those who entered into a contract with the carrier in January 2012 or later. Verizon also said "this change aligns the upgrade date with the contract end date and is consistent with how the majority of customers purchase new phones today."
Without avoiding early termination fees, which can be as high as $325 with AT&T and $350 with Verizon, you can still buy a device unlocked at full price and change it whenever you wish or can afford to--considering most high-end devices cost upward of $600 unsubsidized. However, buying a device SIM-free means that you could save on the monthly cost of your data plan, but it does imply paying more cash upfront for your phone.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile is promoting contract-free plans with unsubsidized phones prices spread out over the course of 24 months--which basically still locks you into a contract, without calling it so. With T-Mobile's plans, you still pay some $150 upfront for an iPhone, and spread the cost over two years, while keeping a low data and voice monthly rolling contract. But T-Mobile landed in hot water because it didn't explain that customers would have to keep T-Mobile service for 24 months or pay off the rest of the phone's full price if they cancel the service.