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Summary:

Last year, regional operator C Spire became the first small carrier in the U.S. to land the iPhone, but it’s good fortune may not continue if Apple launches an LTE smartphone. Spectrum fragmentation may keep Apple’s newest fastest device out of the small carriers’ hands.

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Last year, regional operator C Spire became the first small carrier in the U.S. to land the iPhone, but its good fortune may not continue if Apple launches an LTE version of the iPhone, as expected, this fall. The problem of spectrum fragmentation may conspire to keep Apple’s newest fastest device out of the hands of all but the biggest U.S. operators.

At the Rural Cellular Association’s conference last week, C Spire revealed last week that it plans to launch its LTE network this fall with a “full suite” of devices or services, as reported by Wireless Week. But CEO and president Hu Meena didn’t say what types of devices would be included in that full suite. Last year, U.S. Cellular famously admitted to declining Apple’s offer to sell the iPhone, saying it wanted to wait for an LTE version of the device before it committed to Apple’s volume requirements.

Well, C Spire and U.S. Cellular are building out their LTE networks, which would seem to make them excellent candidates for Apple’s first 4G smartphone. The problem is the spectrum these operators use doesn’t match up with exactly with the frequencies used by AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Technically, all of them are building their networks at 700 MHz, but those 700 MHz airwaves have been sliced and diced into a bunch of different sections, called band classes, to meet the technical requirements of the big operators.

As the two different versions of Apple’s new iPad illustrate, Verizon’s LTE devices don’t work on AT&T’s LTE network and vice versa. What’s worse is that while AT&T technically owns the same exact same 700 MHz licenses as smaller carriers, it’s managed to carve off a band class all to its own in order to incorporate spectrum it recently purchased from Qualcomm into its future networks.

That means device makers have to make choices on whether to include support for the regional operators LTE networks when they design their devices. So far they seem to be favoring the big guys over the pipsqueaks, if Apple’s band decisions for its new 4G iPad are any indication. In a recent post, ExtremeTech’s Neal Gompa broke down the frequencies the two versions of the iPad supported and found while Apple had tailored the CDMA version for Verizon’s LTE frequencies and the GSM version for AT&T’s, C Spire and U.S. Cellulars’ band class 12 was nowhere to be found.

If Apple makes the same technical choices for its next smartphone then not just rural and regional operators will be cut off from any LTE iPhone, but possibly even Sprint. The whole world may be unifying under a single 4G technology, but spectrum politics are creating new rifts.

  1. Verizon is getting around this problem with their LTE in Rural America program, wherein the regional carrier uses Verizon’s licenses to build an LTE system. A benefit to users of this system is that Verizon customers can roam on the regional system as well as the regional system’s customers will have access to Verizon’s national LTE network, so theoretically, an LTE iPhone could be sold by the regional carrier since both networks are the same. I don’t know if Apple will allow these regional carriers to sell an LTE iPhone or not but we will see. One of the regional carriers signed up for Verizon’s program, Pioneer Cellular of Oklahoma and Kansas, is set to turn on their LTE system sometime this year, so we will see what happens.

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  2. Glenn, it’s not a problem for Verizon, it’s a problem for the smaller carriers. All Verizon did was offer to lend their licenses out to these smaller carriers, have them build the networks and then they share them. These deals benefits Verizon MUCH more than it does the rural carrier who sign on. But as the article pointed out, economies of scale are forcing them to do deal with the devil.

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  3. These systems are in areas where Verizon has never built, not do they plan to ever, build a system. For any reason, be it population density, not fitting into their system-wide plans, whatever. The customers are the ones who benefit, no matter which of the partner carriers they choose, forthey might never have LTE service available if it were not for this partnership. These same customers have demand for the iPhone as well as the other hot current LTE phones, but exclusivity gets in the way.

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    1. why do you think cspire is taking this big step..are they going to have a regional advantage…?.since cspire already is sellng out iphone 4s i believe apple will sell the new LTE handset to them too…60million at stake…is it worth the risk?

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