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SprintSprint late last week quietly announced it will phase out its Sprint Premier program, which gave loyal customers a way to upgrade their phones as often as once a year.

“In order to continue offering customers one of the best values of affordable unlimited data plans in the industry today, cutting-edge devices at great prices and our ongoing investment in providing great customer service, we had to make the difficult decision that it’s necessary to bring the Sprint Premier Program to a close at this time,” Melinda Parks, Sprint Director of Marketing, said in a statement.

The move comes just weeks before the massively anticipated launch of Apple’s iPhone 5. Sprint hopes the addition of the iPhone to its lineup will help it be more competitive with AT&T and Verizon, the two largest carriers in the U.S. and both carriers of the iPhone. Sprint’s decision to keep an unlimited data plan will differentiate it from its competitors, which charge for an allotted amount of data each month and charge extra when you go over that amount.

All Premier customers will be able to redeem or take advantage of current benefits like accessory discounts and plan check-ups through the end of 2011. Primer “Gold” members will have until the end of 2012 to take advantage of their last annual upgrade.

Sprint also cut in half the window for returning its phones, shrinking it from 30 days to 14 days. That unfriendly decision puts the company in line with Verizon’s return policies. AT&T offers a 30-day return period on most products, while T-Mobile has a 20-day period.

The company has been in the news lately as one of the largest opponents to AT&T’s proposed buyout of T-Mobile. If the deal goes through, Sprint’s position in the market will be considerably marginalized. At present, there are four major carriers in the U.S., with Verizon at No. 1, AT&T at No. 2, Sprint at No. 3 and T-Mobile at No. 4. If AT&T and T-Mobile customers are combined, AT&T becomes No. 1, Verizon No. 2 and Sprint becomes far and away the smallest major carrier.

What do you think of Sprint’s decision to kill its Premier program?

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