The Verizon iPhone 4 went on sale at retail stores in Billings on Thursday and customers lined up at 6:30 a.m. in front of Verizon Wireless at 2695 King Ave. W.
A dozen people braved the bitter cold, huddling around three propane heaters provided by the store.
Brad Bouchard of Billings was first in line to buy a phone, after a history of modifying AT&T phones to make them work on Verizon's network.
“This is the end of a long quest for me after hacking phones,” Bouchard said. “It was a much-anticipated end.”
Previously excluded from the iPhone club because of AT&T's at-best spotty coverage in this region, cell phone users in areas of Montana, the Dakotas and Wyoming can now get the phone through the nation's largest wireless carrier, Verizon.
That is because Apple Inc. ended AT&T's exclusive contract and allowed Verizon Wireless to sell and provide service for the popular phone that features music, apps and photos.
“Sales have been steady and it's starting to pick up for the after-work rush,” store manager Cari Seilstad said at the end of the afternoon.
She would not say how many phones were in stock, but said the store will order more if they run out.
The phones also were available at one of the area's three Walmarts and at Best Buy.
The West End Walmart received 45 Verizon iPhones on Thursday morning, a day late.
“We just got them a few minutes ago,” store manager Kevin Flock said at 10 a.m. “They were supposed to be here yesterday, but the weather was so bad, UPS couldn't get them here.”
By mid-Thursday, sales had been slow, he said.
“I personally think this will take off, but I think it's just a matter of getting the word out,” Flock said.
The Walmart stores in Laurel and the Heights didn't get any iPhones, but may in the future, according to the Heights store manager Mike Ray.
Best Buy's mobile manager did not return calls about sales. Some Radio Shack stores, including the Heights store near Target, are selling iPhone accessories, but not the phone.
In a single day last week, Verizon sold an estimated 500,000 iPhones during a brief online promotion to its existing customers and expects to sell 11 million more this year, according to Wall Street analysts. That compares to 16.2 million iPhones sold last year when Apple only sold its phones through AT&T.
Verizon would not say how the product was faring Thursday in the region.
“What we've got is a strong demand and things are going as hoped and expected, but we're not releasing sales data,” said Bob Kelley, Verizon's regional public relations manager.
If a customer signs a two-year Verizon contract, the iPhone 4 with 16 GB of memory will be $199.99 and the 32 GB will be $299.99.
One lingering question is whether customers will have to pay a $350 fee for canceling their two-year contract if they buy an iPhone 4 now and want to upgrade to the iPhone 5 later. Kelley said that was a speculative question because he didn't know when the next model would come out.
Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, said the iPhone 5 is expected to come out this summer. CU policy attorney Parul Desai sent a letter to Verizon asking if the cancellation fee would apply in upgrades to the next model, but she said Thursday she hadn't received a response.
It looks as though the cost would be a wash anyway.
If a consumer doesn't want to sign a contract, the full price is about $530 for the 16GB iPhone 4.
That would be about the same price as signing a two-year contract, paying the discounted price of $199 now and possibly paying a $350 cancelation fee to upgrade the phone later.