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Be Free, iPhone

How must it feel to be AT&T (NYSE: T  ) right now? The company that helped birth the iPhone is losing its baby to peers around the globe.

Last week, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) inked a 10-country deal with Vodafone (NYSE: VOD  ) that included Italy. Telecom Italia signed a contract for its homeland the same day, trade magazine PC World reports.

Wait, it gets better. The Vodafone deal also included Australia and India, two countries in which Singapore's SingTel have substantial operations. SingTel became an iPhone licensee on Monday.

The rub? iPhone deals like the ones AT&T and France Telecom (NYSE: FTE  ) signed last year are sooooooo yesterday.

But that shouldn't be surprising. We know that users want unlocked iPhones. For example, China Mobile (NYSE: CHL  ) says that 400,000 Apple handsets are active on its network.

We also know that the iPhone is sold out online in the U.S. and U.K., and that price cuts in France and Germany are clearing inventory there. Even more telling: AT&T is reportedly planning to partially subsidize a new 3G iPhone that analysts expect to debut at Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference in June.

Can you imagine Ma Bell daring to compete with Apple's retail stores? I can't. Unless, of course, the terms have changed. Unless the iEmpire now believes distribution trumps exclusivity.

If so, it's a big move. Apple was reported to be receiving as much as $18 a month in telecom royalties, which would add up to hundreds of millions per year.

Apple would be crazy to let that go if the iPhone hadn't already claimed 6.5% of the global smartphone market. But it has, which strongly suggests that the iEmpire is winning its share of head-to-head match-ups with Research In Motion's (Nasdaq: RIMM  ) BlackBerry and Palm's (Nasdaq: PALM  ) Treo, among others.

Who needs exclusivity when you're winning on merit? Sorry, Ma Bell, but your darling dialer is all grown up.

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