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Summary:

In Apple’s new LTE order, the roles of Sprint and T-Mobile may be reversed. Sprint’s oddly configured networks mean it may not be be able to cash in on a future LTE iPhone. Meanwhile, T-Mobile finds itself a prime candidate for the iconic device.

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iPad HD event Yerba Buena Center San FranciscoIn Apple’s grand unveiling of the new iPad on Wednesday, it named its old pals Verizon Wireless and AT&T as the initial carriers for the mobile version of the device, but Sprint and T-Mobile were absent from the list. This wasn’t a huge shock. One of the iPad’s key features is its LTE radio, and neither Sprint nor T-Mobile has an LTE network to speak of yet.

While you might assume that when their LTE networks do go live this year, they will next be welcomed into the iPad fold (and, more importantly, a future iPhone with LTE). But that won’t necessarily be the case. LTE is a whole new ballgame, and the old 3G rules that determined which carriers were blessed with Apple’s devices don’t apply in 4G. In fact, in this new LTE order the two operators may reverse roles, with T-Mobile landing its first iPhone and Sprint being left out in the cold.

Sprint’s weird network

Of all the operators, Sprint has the funkiest LTE setup. It is the only operator to launch its LTE network over PCS spectrum, which is traditionally reserved for 2G and 3G services. What’s more, Sprint plans to add LTE capacity by tapping into Clearwire’s future TD-LTE network, which uses not only completely different spectrum but also a variant of LTE technology that neither Apple nor any handset maker has yet to support. To bring Sprint fully into the iPhone and iPad fold, Apple would need to design custom versions of those devices for the carrier. Apple is certainly willing to do that for mammoth operators like AT&T and Verizon, as evidenced by the two different LTE versions of the iPad it just released, but Sprint might be too small to make the cut.

That’s not to say Sprint won’t have access to a new iPhone. In fact, it’s a practical certainty that it will, given the 4-year, 30.5 million-unit commitment Sprint has made to Apple to sell future devices. But those phones may just function in CDMA mode, making the LTE radios in them useless weight. This is basically the approach Apple is taking with the iPad internationally. The iPad + 4G has already popped up on Apple’s UK website, along with a long list of supported carriers: Orange, Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and 3UK. Everyone else gets the AT&T version of the new iPad but with the LTE radios turned off.

I’m not saying a Sprint LTE iPhone is impossible. It’s a question of whether it can leverage its big commitment to sell more iPhones against Apple’s historical unwillingness to split its product lines. The sale of 30.5 million iPhones may seem like a lot, but that is spread out over four years. In terms of global sales, that’s just a single good quarter for Apple.

T-Mobile’s time has come

Once Apple opened its portfolio to CDMA last year, T-Mobile became the orphan of the U.S. wireless industry, as no version of the iPhone supported HSPA in its AWS bands. T-Mobile, however, will be in the exact opposite position with LTE. By this time next year, T-Mobile will have completely reconfigured its network, moving a chunk of its HSPA+ network to PCS (which all versions of the iPhone support) and launching a new LTE network in AWS. Basically, T-Mobile’s networks will have nearly the exact same configuration as AT&T’s, and any phone that can work with Ma Bell will be able to work with T-Mo.

The iPhone is now definitely destined for T-Mobile. It’s just a question of timing. By the time the expected new iPhone emerges this fall, T-Mobile’s LTE network won’t be live, but it may have migrated a portion of its HSPA+ network over to PCS. If that’s the case, it could launch the new iPhone (as well as older versions) immediately and turn on the LTE radios as the new network goes up.

Of course, Apple has a say about whether any of these operators gets its device. Apple’s tendency is to sell the iPhone through any operator willing to make a volume commitment. But it also tends to stagger launches, giving preferred partners like AT&T and Verizon first crack. By mid-2013, it’s a good bet we will see the iPhone offered by all four nationwide operators. It’s just a question of which networks those devices will access.

  1. Interesting that no other tablet maker has the desire or ability to really challenge the ipad. I really enjoy mine, but I do see that Haleron has a new 9.7 inch tablet with 10+ hours of usability and Android 4.0. could be the battle of the 4’s until OS5 is out for a while and bugs worked out, but then again Android 5.0 is on the way for the battle of the 5’s.

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  2. TD-LTE is going to be supported by Apple for China Mobile.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 12, 2012

      Hi JP,

      Yep I agree Apple will definitely make a TD-LTE variant — the market is just too big — but that doesn’t mean the phone will work on Sprint’s network. It will have to support both TD-LTE as well as FD-LTE on Sprint’s PCS band. Sprint should have no trouble getting devices for its networks. Apple might be a harder sell though.

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  3. Kevin, When Apple says this will support 700 MHz and 2100 MHz LTE, do you know specifically what 3GPP bands? there are 4 separate US 700 MHz bands (12, 13, 14 and 17). I assume this will be Band 13 for Verizon and 1700/2100 AWS Band 4 for AT&T? Can you confirm? Thanks.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 12, 2012

      Hi Bill the CDMA version uses Verizon’s 700 MHz bands. While the GSM global version uses AT&T’s 700 MHz bands. Whether there is additional 700 MHz band support on either for other licensed holders, Apple hasn’t revealed yet. As for AWS, Apple lists 2100 MHz support both at LTE and HSPA for the GSM version, but I’m not sure if they’re referring to upper-band AWS or the global 3G bands. I’m assuming it’s both: AWS support for LTE and HSPA support for 2.1 global 3G (otherwise the device would be useless in Europe). I’d like to see a more detailed spec sheet to be sure though.

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  4. You forget the small matter that TD-LTE, as used by Sprint/CLWR, will be used by China Mobile and its 600m subs. And AAPL won’t do an LTE iPhone for that? Rubbish…

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 12, 2012

      Hi Timbo,

      Like I told JP, TD-LTE just means a phone that can work on China Mobile and Clearwire’s network, not one that works on Sprint’s unique configuration of bands and technologies.

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  5. Unfortunately, apple will have to become a custom LTE phone provider if they want to increase iphone distribution across carriers in the US. Verizon uses a separate LTE band class, as does AT&T. I think that Sprint will get a separate version given the contract they signed. C Spire would also need a separate version. Other carriers globally haven’t even sorted out which band they will be using yet, but hopefully, they will agree on one.

    When LTE networks are widely available, I can’t imagine apple selling phones without LTE. They’ll have to adjust the new reality whether they like it or not. They certainly make enough money in order to figure this out.

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  6. @ Kevin, I guess you spoke early. If what the guys at engadget are saying true, Apple is preparing iPad2 with Sprint.

    http://www.engadget.com/2012/03/09/exclusive-sprint-ipad-best-buy/

    Sprint is paying a hefty ransom to Apple thanks to that multi billion dollar commitment. Apple “WILL” help Sprint.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 12, 2012

      Thanks for the link, bpg.

      I’m sure if Sprint wants the New iPad (it didn’t seem to want the iPad 2 even though I’m sure it was available to it), then it will have no problem getting it, but I suspect it will only run on its CDMA EV-DO network. The CDMA version of the iPad announced last week doesn’t have LTE support at PCS, so it would require a new version of the device to work on Sprint’s new network. (If it launches such a device, I’ll eat my words, I promise).

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  7. Kevin, What makes you think Sprint is spending all the money they are on Apple and LTE, and yet the LTE iPad won’t work on Sprint? Your article makes no sense.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 12, 2012

      Hi J,

      I addressed that point in the post. Sprint’s investment may seem large from a U.S. perspective. But Apple thinks in global volumes. Who knows? Maybe a 30 million device commitment will be enough to convince Apple to make a custom version, but I don’t think it’s guaranteed. Apple has never done it before. Sure, there’s the CDMA iPhone 4, but that device had a much bigger potential audience than just Verizon.

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  8. Valerie Chapman Sunday, June 3, 2012

    Non of this answers the big question when can I plan to order my tmobile iPhone?

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