By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
June 20, 2008

One of the unanswered questions about the iPhone’s new business model is how much AT&T is paying Apple for the phones it sells for $199 to $299 apiece.

Conventional wisdom says that the usual subsidy for a smartphone like this – i.e., what Research in Motion (RIMM) gets for the BlackBerry – is about $200 per phone. In other words, carriers pay RIM about $399 for phones that sell for $199.

The consensus among Apple analysts is that Cupertino is getting a good bit more than that.

In a note to clients last Tuesday, Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster estimated that Apple is getting an average of $466 per iPhone, split between the 8GB and 16GB models.

The same day, Toni Sacconaghi at Bernstein Research, offered his take: he believes Apple will sell iPhones to carriers for anywhere from $350 to $700 each.

The latest estimate, offered Thursday by Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner, adds another wrinkle. Reiner believes that in addition to paying paying Apple (AAPL) a $325 subsidy on every iPhone sold (even the ones Apple sells), AT&T is paying a bounty of $100 for subscribers signed up at the Apple store.

If true, the total cost to AT&T (T) could be as much as $524 per iPhone — considerably more than other manufacturers get for their smartphones.

The effect on the market is to tilt the playing field in Apple’s direction, says Reiner. “Rivals must scramble to hit a lower, less profitable price point,” he writes. (link)

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