Numerous readers have written in to tell us that AT&T is not offering them upgrade pricing for the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5. The iPhone 4S went on sale in mid-October of 2011, so even those in the first round of buyers are only midway through a two-year contract.
Domestically, you can check your individual account status via Apple's iPhone 5 eligibility page, covering all three US carriers. In other countries, there should be similar carrier check-in links on the local version of store.apple.com.
Customers who bought the 4S from AT&T signed on for a 24-month contract in exchange for a lower, subsidized purchase price for the phone (actual retail price $400 higher than what you paid, made up for over the life of the contract in service charges). It shouldn't be a big surprise that most aren't eligible for an upgrade barely a year later.
What is causing the frustration is not policy but precedent: AT&T has offered upgrading pricing to many customers when the "new" iPhone came out, even to those who had purchased last year's model and signed a two-year contract. However, this year AT&T seems to have decided not to make such an offer.
At least one reader has been told by an AT&T representative that this policy change was dictated to the carrier by Apple, insisting that AT&T wait at least 18 months before offering users upgrade pricing. Consider me highly dubious of that claim.
Oh, I believe that it's something that someone at AT&T might say but I don't believe that it's true that Apple is dictating AT&T policy. First of all, I can't see any reason why Apple wouldn't want as many people as possible to have the newest iPhone. Secondly, if Apple was capable of dictating AT&T's business decisions, I doubt that AT&T would be artificially restricting FaceTime over cellular.
That being said, one reader wrote in to say that while he was told that his AT&T iPhone is not eligible for an upgrade, his AT&T iPad was, and so he could get upgrade pricing through his "iPad phone number." That's a little bit wacky -- the iPad's data connection may technically have a phone number, but it's not a voice contract and in fact is only a month-to-month plan.
It sounds like while some AT&T customer service reps are trying to blame Apple for AT&T's policies, others might be trying to find ways to help their customers "work the system." Obviously your mileage may vary, but if you have an AT&T iPhone and an AT&T iPad and are anxious for the iPhone 5, it might be worth a call to see if that option is available to you. Users with multiple lines or family plans may find that an older phone is upgrade-eligible even if the 4S is not.
Personally I have been on an "every other model" plan with the iPhone since the original. I had the original, skipped the 3G and upgraded to the 3GS. The 3GS was much better than the 3G, and a much better "leap forward" than the 3G was over the original iPhone. Likewise, when the iPhone 4 came out, I resisted the call of the Retina display and waited for the 4S. Again this year I'll watch the iPhone 5 pass me by and look forward to the "whatever they call the one after the iPhone 5" in a year.