AT&T may lose its exclusive deal with Apple for the iPhone, which lifted its third-quarter profit with 3.2 million activations over the period.

The gains in subscribers reported on Thursday represented the highest third-quarter net gain in the company's history, bringing its subscribers to 81.6 million in total. It saw 3.2 million iPhone activations, of which 40 percent were new customers.

While AT&T beat profit expectations on Wall Street with the help of iPhone, the company will not have exclusive access to Apple's handset forever, said Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T Mobility.

With few details provided, de la Vega said AT&T would survive after the iPhone moves to other carriers.

We have a legacy of having a great portfolio... that will continue after the iPhone is no longer exclusive to us, de la Vega said in a conference call after the earnings announcement. We think we will continue after the iPhone... to drive (results).

He expected its High Speed Packet Access (HSPA) 7.2 technology to be the next pipeline for continued growth.

Even if we lose exclusivity, we will be the only carrier with HSPA 7.2 and (new devices) will work on our network faster, de la Vega said. I feel as strongly as ever (about the capability of devices in our lineup).

However, one industry analyst hold different views about the loss of exclusivity.

It will be very negative for AT&T as the popular handset is its tremendous growth engine, said Brian Marshall, analyst at Broadpoint AmTech.

Apple started its exclusivity deal with the carrier in the middle of 2007, which gave them the benefit to make custom services, like visual voicemail. Apple now prefers multiple carriers for the handset, Marshall contends.

He also predicted that Verizon may become the next iPhone carrier in the U.S by 2010, despite the fact that it recently teamed with Google and Motorola to take on Apple and AT&T.

The consumer electronics maker has already moved to end its overseas iPhone exclusivity with multi-company agreements reached in the U.K. and Canada. Apple's recent Unicom contract to sell iPhone in China is non-exclusive and it's hoping to ink a second deal with China Mobile, the world's largest mobile operator. 

The trend raises hopes in the U.S. that other carriers may also get the iPhone. According to Morgan Stanley analyst Kathryn Huberty, Apple could easily double its iPhone market share to 12 percent by getting more carriers in U.S.

Apple was not available for immediate comment.