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With new phones, carriers' pricing wars heat up

As new phones from Samsung and Apple hit the market, all the big carriers are aiming to poach customers from their rivals.

In this fight, it's T-Mobile vs. Sprint and Verizon vs. AT&T.

CTIA
Jae C. Hong | AP

T-Mobile has launched some of the most aggressive plans, including offering paying up to $350 of early-termination fees to get consumers to make the switch. CEO John Legere has a track record of shaking things up, like killing off the classic two-year phone contract along with roaming fees. And he surely has more announcements planned for the "Uncarrier 7.0" event scheduled for Wednesday.

Sprint, under new CEO Marcelo Claure, is looking to take a page from T-Mobile's success by offering more for less.

"They've gotten out of the 'family' plans, which were a little confusing, were not well-received in the marketplace," said Drexel Hamilton analyst Barry Sine. "Now they're a little bit clearer on message, and their pricing looks a lot more like T-Mobile. They've got promotional pricing where your rate plan goes up at the end of 2015."

Sprint's copying T-Mobile's offer to reimburse costs to switch carriers, and unveiled aggressive pricing, including a data-heavy family plan for $100. For both of those companies that may not wind up being a terribly expensive offer, since many customers forget to claim the rebate, and many are near the end of their contract.

On the upper end are AT&T and Verizon, which have more premium offerings, particularly when it comes to video, along with more premium prices.

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AT&T has been offering discounts as well. Its discounted wireless pricing helped it achieve record low churn this past quarter. But it's not just a race to the bottom. At CTIA, AT&T is showing off all the work it's doing around the automated home and automated car. And with the DirecTV deal AT&T is expected to start offering that content across their platforms, to catch up with Verizon's video options.

Verizon CEO Dan Mead said in an interview with CNBC Tuesday that his customers "want quality of the network, they want consistency. They want the ability to help manage their lives through their devices. Video growth is a very important thing, as is connection with family in terms of text, data, using social media through mobile devices."

"Verizon is the premium brand with premium prices," said analyst Sine. "They're looking at premium services now on the iPhone to get more revenue and break out of the mold of just trying to sell you a cheaper rate plan and a lower subsidized headset," he said.

"Their agreement with the NFL to offer streaming NFL games on your cell phone is a good example of how Verizon is going to exploit their premium brand and grow revenue without having to duke it out in the trenches for low prices," Sine said.

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AT&T does have a lower-price offering—its new "Cricket" brand—but it's staying away from any association with AT&T. "They don't advertise it as an AT&T brand," Sine says. "But Cricket can go down-market and slug it out with the low end carriers very low prices, while still using the AT&T Network and using that volume to get higher margins."

And while carriers drop data prices, we're seeing higher prices elsewhere. They're phasing out phone subsidies and spreading out the full cost of devices over time. To avoid massive sticker shock—especially for Apple's new phones, which are far more expensive than Android devices—installment plans will be front-and-center, so consumers can still walk out the door of a store feeling like they just got something for free, even if they have to pay later.

By CNBC's Julia Boorstin