Apple's LTE move with iPhone 5 leaves Europe on the back burner
The product's three models include support for many frequencies but leaves out two key European bands
By Stephen Lawson | Published: 11:00, 13 September 2012
While Apple is moving to LTE with the iPhone 5, it is focused for now on North America and advanced Asian markets, leaving Europe's most important LTE bands behind.
The iPhone 5 will come in three versions, equipped to use different sets of frequencies: two phones for the GSM family of technologies and one for CDMA, which also includes GSM bands for roaming.
On top of those frequencies, each model includes selected bands for the faster 4G LTE technology, a key selling point of the iPhone 5. However, the new lineup leaves out two bands – 800MHz and 2.6GHz – that will be critical to LTE service in Europe, according to Tolaga Research analyst Phil Marshall.
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Indeed, 800MHz and 2.6GHz are the two spectrum bands that UK operators will be bidding for in Ofcom's forthcoming 4G auction, scheduled for the end of this year.
"If you were to build a European device, it would have 800MHz and 2.6GHz in it," Marshall said. Carriers in Germany, Sweden, Italy and other European countries already have or are expected to deploy LTE in one or both of these bands.
Apple does include the 1800MHz band for LTE in two of the iPhone 5 models, which could provide for LTE use in some parts of Europe, Marshall said. This set of frequencies, also called Band 3, is used by about 25 percent of LTE operators worldwide, according to Tolaga.
This is one of the LTE bands that wasn't included in the iPad 3 launched earlier this year, a shortcoming that led to legal action in Australia over Apple advertising the tablet as supporting "4G." The company dropped that claim from its advertising in Australia after the country's competition agency took Apple to court.
Earlier this week the UK's largest operator Everything Everywhere (EE) began live testing its 4G network, which will be delivered using spectrum in the 1800MHz band. EE is currently the only UK operator with enough 1800MHz spectrum to launch a 4G network in this band.
Last month, EE was forced to sell 2x15MHz of its 1800MHz spectrum to the UK’s smallest operator Three, as part of the terms of the merger of T-Mobile and Orange in 2010. However, Three has not yet announced any plans to launch a 4G network in this band.
This means that support for the main LTE bands in Europe will have to wait for a later release of the iPhone, Marshall said – a revelation that is bound to infuriate the likes of O2 and Vodafone.
"They've put a device together that's targeted toward the US and mature Asian markets," namely Japan and South Korea, plus including several 3G frequencies in all three models for roaming, he said. That may be a smart strategy when it comes to investing in new product versions.
"Europe, from an LTE standpoint, has not gained nearly as much momentum as the US and mature Asian markets," Marshall said.
Equipping a phone for many different frequencies – the CDMA iPhone 5 can be used for 16 different bands, depending on the carrier – isn't an insurmountable task but presents challenges for makers of chipsets and of subsystems such as amplifiers and filters, as well as the phone vendor, Marshall said.
It may even dictate choices about how the phone's motherboard is laid out, allowing for adequate isolation of radio waves from the various bands.
By making more than one model of the iPhone 5, Apple may be reining in the potential costs of that development. Starting with the iPhone 4, it has released separate CDMA and GSM versions, but the fragmentation of different frequencies used for LTE has raised the complexity bar with this release.
"I would anticipate that they will continue to do these multiple [products] rather than try and jam it all into one device," Marshall said. But after several generations of the phone, LTE networks may have matured to the point where there is an obvious set of LTE bands to include in one phone sold around the world, he added.
The many different pieces of spectrum used for LTE is a problem that goes well beyond Apple, and travelers are not expected to be able to roam on these fast networks in foreign countries for several years.
The three models of iPhone 5 that are set to go on sale from 21 September are specialised for certain markets.
One model, the GSM Model A1428, looks geared toward AT&T, the original carrier of the iPhone and a mainstay of Apple's US phone business. It's built to use LTE in bands 4 and 17, both of which are deployed by AT&T. (T-Mobile USA's planned LTE network will also be in band 4, though that doesn't mean an AT&T iPhone 5 will work or even necessarily roam on T-Mobile, it only makes it possible to build units for that network.)
GSM Model A1429 seems suited for key Asian carriers: It has bands used by Japan's NTT DoCoMo (at 2.1GHz) and by South Korea's SK Telecom and LG UPlus (at 850MHz), along with the widely used 1800MHz band.
There is just one model designed for CDMA, the type of 3G network used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel in the US. That phone, the CDMA Model 1429, includes the two Japanese and Korean LTE bands in addition to Band 13, used by Verizon, and Band 25, used by Sprint.
All three phones include support for four widely used bands for GSM plus four for its faster variants that go under the HSPA name. The CDMA unit includes three bands specifically for its variant of 3G, called EVDO.
Sophie Curtis contributed to this article.