Blog Post

4G Fragmentation forces Apple to build 3 separate iPhones

Apple’s(s aapl) just released tech specs reveal it has decided to split the iPhone line into three separate devices, each targeted at different regions and carriers. That represents a significant break from tradition for Apple, which has always attempted to build a single device it could sell all over the world even if it meant excluding some big name operators.

Apple’s official iPhone 5 specs show two GSM models and one CDMA model, with the critical differences between them being which global LTE bands they support. As we’ve pointed out before, the huge number of global LTE bands means that Apple can no longer make a single device and expect to capture a majority of the world’s networks. So Apple is now following the same strategy as Samsung, Nokia(s nok) and other smartphone makers: tailoring its devices for specific carriers and markets.

Oddly the CDMA model appears to be the global version of the device. It not only has the support for the most LTE bands (including Japan, Korea’s and some of Europe’s 4G bands along with Verizon and Sprint(s s), it also has support for global GSM and HSPA+ frequencies.

The two GSM models aren’t just regionally focused, one is targeted specifically at AT&T. The LTE bands in one GSM version line up exactly with AT&T’s(s t) 4G networks, a configuration that no other operator in the world uses (though half of its bands will also support Canada’s LTE networks). The other GSM model appears to be targeted at Asian carriers, but has additional support for the 1800 MHz bands used by UK’s Everything Everywhere and a few other European operators. All of those bands are supported in the CDMA version, but Apple is likely looking to cut down on its radio components cost by targeting this phone specifically at particular regions.

What’s most surprising though is that Europe’s primary 4G frequency bands 2.6 GHz and 800 MHz aren’t supported in any of the three devices. That means that most European operators deploying LTE next year will have to wait for the next generation of the device to offer 4G services over the iPhone.

Here are the detailed specs if you want to interpret them for yourselves:

  • GSM model A1428*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17)
  • CDMA model A1429*: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25)
  • GSM model A1429*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5)

The last time Apple did this was when it launched the CDMA version of the iPhone 4 for Verizon(s vz)(s vod), but shortly afterwards it combined both versions into a single global iPhone. But the implications of this strategy could have huge implications for the industry at large. If Apple has gotten over its reluctance to split the iPhone supply chain, it could mean it could start making iPhones for carriers it has previously ignored such as China Mobile(s chl), NTT DoCoMo(s dcm) and, yes, even T-Mobile.

22 Responses to “4G Fragmentation forces Apple to build 3 separate iPhones”

    • Kevin Fitchard

      It’s the AT&T version so it will support AWS and and the lower 700 MHz (AT&T’s unique portion of it). It will work on AT&T’s network and T-Mobile’s network, but you’ll have to wait a while on T-Mo to get LTE connectivity (and in many cases even 3G connectivity).

  1. RaptorOO7

    But Apple has failed and missed big time where Android is on target. Apple’s new iPhone 5 LTE does NOT support VoLTE or simultaneous voice and data (data on 4G LTE and Voice on 3G EVDO) like so many Android phones do.

    This is a huge issue and again leaves Verizon and Sprint customers lacking a critical feature that Android does.

    Apple finally caught up to Android by adding LTE, Panorama feature in the camera, 1080p recording, etc. Many features Android has had for 1-2 years.

    So when maybe Apple releases their 8th Gen iPhone in two years they will finally have figured out their radio designs and will call it magical all over again.

    Maybe they can double down on secrecy by then.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Robert, the CDMA version supports all of those bands as well. I think it’s an issue of where Apple is choosing to sell it, not what it can support. Technically the CDMA one will work anywhere the global GSM will.

  2. Note 2 at the bottom of the LTE support chart on Apple’s site notes “Unlocked iPhone 5 models may support LTE networks outside the country of purchase when using a valid SIM from a supported carrier. Contact your carrier for more details.”

    I think what the “Supported LTE Networks” column REALLY means is just “Supported networks by this phone model, that have LTE.” i.e. “These are the carriers that are going to be selling this model.” They just don’t bother to be explicit about its full roaming network support.

    So the only “useless hardware” is really only what’s needed for CDMA support other than the baseband chip (since that’s the same anyway) on A1429 when it’s used on GSM. Otherwise, the remaining GSM, HSDPA & LTE PAs, antennas, etc. will still be able to be used when roaming.

    This is just typical of Apple’s minimalist style in listing specifications. (e.g. leaving out iPhone processor speed, number of cores, amount of RAM, battery mA, etc.).

    • RaptorOO7

      Fortunately we have iFixIt to help us with the last part, when they do their full tear down of the latest iPhone we will know exactly what Apple was to scared to tell us, or what they figure their customers are too stupid to understand. lol.

  3. Turing Eret

    Anyone know why Apple’s LTE support page says that the CDMA A1429 version only supports KDDI outside of the US? That model clearly has the same bands used by the European GSM A1429, but the European telecoms aren’t mentioned.

  4. Sean Hunter

    Take a closer look, there appear to be only 2 model numbers:
    SM model A1428*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 4 and 17)

    CDMA model A1429*: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25)

    GSM model A1429*: UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5)

    I suspect Apple has 2 physical models, but maybe has disabled (or just doesn’t mention support for) CDMA in the “GSM” version of the A1429.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hey Sean,

      Yeah, I have had that pointed out to me: the models appear to be the same but the firmware is different. That makes no sense to me though since the 2nd GSM version would have all of this embedded hardware (PAs, antennas and what not) that would just sit their useless. Why bother with separate firmware if you’re gonna embed all of the components? I’m looking into it though.

      • Isn’t that directly in line with their current practice though? The current 4S is one model with a GSM firmware and a CDMA firmware. The GSM firmware shuts down access to the CDMA side of the phone, and the CDMA firmware for Verizon/Sprint allows the use of international SIM cards but disables use with domestic SIM cards. The separate firmware on the 5S may be to allow for similar carrier lockdowns and perhaps shutting down the “unneeded” antennas also has performace / battery life enhancement effect on the phone?

      • Looking into it further, the A1429 does appear to be one physical model. Disabling CDMA in the “GSM” version is apparently so that Apple does not pay CDMA licensing fees on these phones which are never intended to connect to a CDMA network. Nothing so altruistic as possibly improving performance. It’s just profit.

  5. Petri Ojala

    The LTE band support is pretty bad in fact, Apple managed to miss the quite common 2600 Mhz and the new 800 Mhz which many carriers e.g. around Europe are planning to deploy soon. A friend at the local carrier said that it’s pretty stupid to launch a LTE phone without 2600 Mhz band.

    The Huawei E392 LTE stick I’m currently using does 2600/2100/1800/900/DD800 and Nokia did 800/900/1800/2100/2600 to the new Lumia 920 and 820 (plus another version to the US market, I believe).