All that free support to unlockers might not have been in vain. Merrill Lynch analyst Scott Craig reports in a note to clients Thursday that Deutsche Telekom could announce a long-expected iPhone deal for T-Mobile USA as early as next week. Funny, we thought the German carrier could not afford Apple’s handset.

“We recognize that it has been a point of churn for us”, the carrier’s op-chief recently said in response to concerns related to lack of iPhone in its offering. The company confirmed it lost nearly half a million subscribers because of the iPhone 5 launch.

Truth be told, T-Mobile, which has 33 million customers, now hosts about 1.5 million unlocked iPhones on its network. Moreover, it’s been rolling out its iPhone-friendly HSPA+ network on the 1900MHz band in more markets. Our take is that a T-Mobile iPhone is inevitable, if not imminent…

Philip Elmer-DeWitt of the Fortune blog relays Merrill Lynch Scott Craig’s note claiming “speculation is heightening” that Deutsche Telecom will announce a deal to bring the popular smartphone to its U.S. subsidiary at next week’s analysts day.

If true, the rumored distribution agreement will add T-Mobile’s 33 million subscribers to Apple’s addressable market in the United States, essentially giving the iPhone access to a nice 98 percent of the nation’s post-paid base as well as to three-quarters (75 percent) of the country’s total mobile subscribers.

The analyst concludes in his note:

While this would be incrementally positive, any financial impact would be limited.

His assessment contrasts that of T-Mobile’s op-chief Jim Alling who said at Morgan Stanley’s Technology, Media & Telecoms Conference earlier this month:

Make no mistake about it: We would love to carry the iPhone. However, we want the economies to be right for us.

The analyst estimates a deal with Apple could potentially add about four million iPhones to his current estimate of 179 million iPhones for calendar 2013.

The distribution agreement with the nation’s fourth-largest carrier would also increase Apple’s revenue by one percent, boosting earnings per share by as much as two percent.

The company in a blog post cites its own tests painting the unlocked iPhone 4S on its 1900MHz HSPA+ network as having on average 70 percent faster download speeds than AT&T iPhone 4S devices.

I’m on T-Mobile here in Europe and just out of curiosity: would the official deal with Apple be a big deal for American consumers?

After all, they do have some nice 4G unlimited plans.