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Is this the end of the phone subsidy?

A pedestrian passes advertisements for Apple's iPhone 6 (Kostas Tsironis/Bloomberg)
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Your smartphone bill is about to get much more complicated.

For years, smartphone shopping has gone something like this: Pick the latest phone, pay a one-time fee of $200 for it, and agree to a monthly rate for calls, texts and data. Consumers were getting what seemed like a massive discount on a new device that really cost roughly $650 in exchange for signing a two-year contract.

But AT&T has recently made a series of small changes to herd customers away from these agreements. In their place are plans that eliminate the price break off the price tag of the phone — and spread that cost over 12, 18 or 24 months.

And — in a twist that will test the skills of even the most budget-conscious customers — the company offers a set of different discounts depending on which of 10 data plans you choose. The more data you buy, the bigger the savings, of course.

Confused? You’re probably not alone.

In general, Mike Gikas, an editor of the non-profit Consumer Reports, called this type of billing — which AT&T has labeled “Next” — a “good trend” for consumers. Many people will see their bills stay the same or go down because of the discounts on data.

But, he added, the complexity of these bills, could “force customers to do things that are counterintuitive.” For example, he said, users may end up buying more data than they need to get a better deal on their monthly phone payment.

Many AT&T customers won’t see other choices. AT&T said people trying to buy smartphones on, say, Apple’s Web site or through a major retailer such as Best Buy, will only see the option of choosing Next plans. Those who want the old contract model will have to call AT&T directly, head to its Web site or visit one of its AT&T stores.

Next has been around for about two years, and AT&T said its decision to feature the plan exclusively on partner Web sites and stores is because consumers want it that way.

“So we’re responding by featuring Next as the most prominent way to get a new smartphone at our national retailers and local dealers,” the company said in a statement. “Customers who would rather have a two-year contract still have that option.”

Analysts expect the Next-like plans to soon become the dominant standard in the industry, and all four major carriers have their own version. Fast-growing T-Mobile have long offered such plans; Verizon offers a similar one called “Edge.” Sprint recently extended its device plan with a leasing program for phones called "All In."

There are potential downsides. Some of the various combinations on AT&T's Next could lead consumers to pay more, especially those who opt for lower data plans, which only offer a $15 discount per month. In addition, customers who currently have unlimited data would lose that benefit forever if they switch to a new data plan in addition to the Next device plan.

But there are benefits as well. In general, consumers end up avoiding some of the more egregious contract cancellation fees -- especially for those who like to upgrade their phones before their two-year contract is up.

And those who keep their phone after they’ve paid it off should see their bill drop considerably because the data discounts stay in place.

Yet moving away from the subsidy model has a distinct accounting advantage for carriers, said telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett of Moffett Nathanson. Having consumers pay over time for phones changes the way companies can report the money they make from device sales, and allow them to report better revenue and profitability growth numbers.

And for consumers? “It’s a distinction without a difference,” Moffett said. “Not that many people are walking into stores saying, ‘Gee, I wish I could call this a sale instead of a subsidy.’ What does the customer care?” Plus, Moffett noted, many of these plans let you walk away from the store with no-cash down, making it feel as if you’ve really picked up a top-tier phone for free even though you’ve just slightly changed how you’re borrowing the money to buy it.

At the end of the day, if they’re still writing the same amount on that monthly check -- or, more likely, automatic debit -- maybe consumers don’t care exactly how their bill breaks down.

But while having five or even ten plans to choose from may benefit consumers, Gikas said it does require consumers to do more careful homework before they head to the store.

“If one thing hasn’t changed, it’s that the carriers make it virtually impossible to make apples to apples comparisons,” he said.