Rumors are flying hot and heavy that AT&T is seeking to extend its deal with Apple as the exclusive U.S. carrier for the iPhone. The original deal between the two companies runs out next year.

From a purely consumer standpoint, we hope Apple dumps its pact with AT&T and unlocks the uber popular iPhone so it can work on any wireless carrier network.

The iPhone has been wedded to AT&T for service since the got-to-have gadget was introduced in the U.S. a couple of years ago. The one theme from consumers that has been a constant since then has been iPhone owners love the device, but many aren’t that crazy about AT&T’s service. That really didn’t matter, however. If you wanted an iPhone you were forced to sign up for AT&T service.

Ironically, unlocked iPhones that work on multiple carrier networks are already sold in other counties, including both France and Germany.

As consumer advocates, we have never liked the exclusive arrangement between Apple and AT&T. And the reasons go far deeper than the fact that AT&T has lousy service in many parts of country.

For one thing, people who live and/or work outside the range of AT&T’s network aren’t able to use an iPhone. A term has even been developed for iPhones that can’t access AT&T’s network – the IBrick.

Also, the exclusive deal gives AT&T monopoly powers over anyone who wants to buy and use an iPhone. This is the same AT&T that was such an aggressive monopoly that the government broke it up in 1987. Since then it has reassembled itself to a large degree and it appears to have retained a good bit of the monopolist DNA.

That’s part of what made Apple’s decision to go into an exclusive deal with AT&T so troubling in the first place. Apple has long been at the forefront of innovation – first with computers, then with portable music players and most recently with the iPhone. AT&T has been much less innovative, retaining much of the monopolistic, “we’re the only game in town” mindset.

Think about it for a minute. AT&T was still forcing customers to rent big, clunky, hard-to-use phones from it right up until the company was broken up by the government in 1987. Look at what happened after anyone was allowed to attach devices to AT&T’s lines. Along came FAX machines, answering machines, computer modems. And phones became so inexpensive they were given away with magazine subscriptions.

The current speculation is that AT&T is willing to do almost anything to keep its exclusive deal on the iPhone going for another couple of years, including huge payments and a substantial cut of its monthly service revenues.

But Apple clearly doesn’t need AT&T to be successful. An unlocked iPhone would almost certainly boost sales of the devices from millions of customers who prefer getting their wireless service from someone other than AT&T.

This would lead to another benefit to consumers as well. AT&T and all the other wireless carriers would have to compete aggressively with each other to attract and retain IPhone owners. Wireless prices would drop and service would improve.

If you’re a consumer, what’s not to like about that?