Small carriers are launching LTE, but will they ever see a 4G iPhone?

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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.

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