There is a slow-motion revolution taking place in the mobile phone space: prepaid wireless. You buy the phone for cash, then you buy minutes or bits separately.
This model is common in most of the world, but uncommon here, for a variety of reasons. But it's about to get more common, thanks to Sprint (S) re-sellers offering the iPhone and consumer advocates taking a second look at the space.
For investors, what matters is that modern prepaid wireless transforms customer relationships. You are no longer tied to, and dependent, on, your carrier. Instead, the relationship is with your phone provider.
Google (GOOG) has been especially aggressive in this area, and this has reduced iPhone share in countries where prepaid is the norm. You can now get an Android on a prepaid plan for as little as $149 -- and since you're not buying the phone on time, you're saving a lot of money every month.
So the real game-changer here is Apple's (AAPL) entry. In effect, it legitimizes the space. And the biggest losers here are bound to be AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ), both of which have been trying to push through price increases and per-bit pricing just as the prepaid movement gathers steam.
There has always been tension between the smartphone manufacturers and the carriers. Smartphones are basically computers; they're Internet clients, rather than primarily voice machines. You don't get a PC with a calling plan, or get one cheaper because there's a calling plan attached. You don't buy a PC that is filled with carrier programs aimed at controlling what you do with the phone and charging you out the wazoo for it.
Carrier advocates may scream to the skies that they're essential, that customers can't live without them. And it's true they're not going away. But they're also, potentially, about to lose a lot of customer control, and investors should know it's time to buy the phones and sell the networks.