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What’s AT&T planning? Hidden specs unearthed in the GSM iPhone 5

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There’s more to the AT&T (s t) version of the iPhone 5 than meets the eye. ExtremeTech’s Neal Gompa sorted through the device’s testing documentation at the Federal Communications Commission and found there are two more 4G frequency bands supported in the North American GSM iPhone beyond those Apple revealed in its official specs.(s aapl)

Those bands are cellular and PCS, which operators today use for their 2G and 3G networks. The revelation is surprising, though it’s certainly not suspicious. Except for Sprint, no iPhone operator is launching LTE on those bands, and Sprint uses a different iPhone variant than AT&T. Apple had no reason to include those bands in its specs because there’s no network this particular iPhone could conceivably connect to – at least not yet.

The question is why Apple added these bands, and the answer is almost certainly because AT&T asked it to. AT&T is currently launching LTE over its 700 MHz network, and it has stated it will launch LTE in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) frequencies. But its spectrum holdings in AWS are dwindling as it just handed over a bunch of licenses to T-Mobile.

AT&T has made no secret of the fact it is hunting around for new bands over which to deploy LTE since its current LTE networks will only get it so far. It just submitted an enormously complex proposal to the FCC that would allow it to turn its now useless 2.3 GHz into a private LTE band. But these new frequencies in the iPhone hint at another possibility: Ma Bell may be planning to cannibalize its 2G and 3G networks to gain more LTE capacity.

AT&T has on average 55 MHz of PCS and cellular spectrum nationwide, and it’s pretty much all accounted for. In some parts of the country, AT&T has begun shutting down parts of its GSM network, but it isn’t replacing with it LTE, rather its building new HSPA networks. But now that the iPhone is fully LTE compatible, its mobile data burden will start shifting from 3G to 4G. When enough of that traffic has made the journey, AT&T could start shutting down 2G or 3G capacity. And once it clears out a contiguous 10 MHz chunk it could build an LTE network.

All US carriers will eventually refarm their 2G and 3G spectrum – T-Mobile has already shut down most of its GSM network — but it will likely take years before they seriously start messing around with those frequencies. That’s why it’s puzzling that the new iPhone supports those frequencies today. European operators are a year away from having sizable LTE network on their 2.6 GHz spectrum, yet Apple nixed those frequencies from all its iPhones. Why would it make cellular and PCS such big exceptions?

Either AT&T has enormous pull with Apple, convincing it to make an iPhone that will work on networks years away from being deployed. Or AT&T is planning a massive reconfiguration of its networks in the next year, something akin to the major network overhaul T-Mobile is doing today.

24 Responses to “What’s AT&T planning? Hidden specs unearthed in the GSM iPhone 5”

  1. what a bunch of bull. Tmobile turned down GSM? seriously? Who is your source?

    WIth respect to bands –
    An Iphone has a radio, it also has functionality built in. It is not unlikely that if you have radio that car read a certain frequency (AWS, PCS etc) that it interfaces to a chip that can decode the signal (LTE, WCDMA-UMTS). So, yes it is likely you can activate PCS-LTE, or AWS-LTE, or AWS-WCDMA. This simply means, that the Iphone 5 can work on T-mobile’s AWS frequencies as a 3G phone… or later onto their AWS LTE frequencies. Afterall, LTE and UMTS are related technologies that share an evolution and are backwards compatible.

  2. Hi Kevin.
    Here is a good question you might be able to answer…or at least find out. Do other AT&T LTE phones, like the HTC OneX, also contain those PCS and Cellular frequencies? If so then it might be happening very soon which I think is awesome. The people in the northeast part of Michigan are jumping ship to Verizon because the AT&T network up there is TERRIBLE. It’s still on the old (non Class 10 or 12) EDGE network which is slower than dialup!!!

  3. ok so apple will make a phone with the capability of accessing frequencies NO ONE in the foreseeable future is using “just in case AT&T might use it some time down the road” but its “technically impossible to also include UMTS/HSPA on AWS for Tmobile and the few others that use AWS for that purpose.

  4. Ian Littman

    Here’s an easy answer for why Apple crammed PCS and Cellular LTE into the A1428 (AT&T edition): doing so makes it have more in common with the A1429, which they’ll sell more of (the international version is the A1429). This decreases costs due to parts differences…and it opens the door for smaller GSM/HSPA operators in the Americas to pick up the iPhone 5 and use it on their upcoming LTE networks.

    Let’s say that, for example, regional GSM carrier Viaero Wireless wants to trot out a 5×5 LTE carrier on Cellular or PCS. They can get a Samsung phone or two that runs on that, as well as a Motorola phone or two…and they can get the iPhone as well. Or maybe T-Mobile, three years down the road, has enough PCS free from a huge LTE in AWS push to deploy some LTE on PCS as well. The iPhone will be able to support both bands.

    Then of course there’s the obvious AT&T story: the carrier has either PCS, Cellular or both spectrum nationwide. They don’t have nationwide licenses for even the combination of AWS and 700MHz. So it’s only a matter of time before LTE shows up on AT&T in cellular and PCS, though it’s a tossup as to whether Verizon or T-Mobile gets there before AT&T does.

    Too bad Apple couldn’t add just one more band…AWS…into the A1429 iPhone. milanyc’s explanation sounds plausible about band counts (the A1429 iPhone supports 700 upper C 800/650, 1800, 1900 and 2100, while the A1428 supports 700 lower B+C, 850, AWS and PCS…what’s the fifth band?), but the inclusion of AWS into the A1429 iPhone would have been a huge win for the likes of CricKet, MetroPCS, C-Spire and even Verizon, all of whom run (or will run within a few years) LTE in AWS and CDMA elsewhere.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Ian, all good points. But they’re based on long-term and hypothetical carrier plans. Apple simply doesn’t do business that way. It wouldn’t even put 2.6 GHz in the phone for European operators. Why would it entertain all of these what ifs for much smaller players?

  5. If they could their hands on WTR1605 (just starting to ship) which supports 7 LTE bands instead of 5 on RTR8600, maybe they could’ve included 2600Mhz band, but as it looks right now, both A1428 and A1429 are maxing out all 5 RF paths, and there is simply no space for an extra band.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Good point, Phillip, Apple will continue to make the iPhone 5 for at least too more generations. But it’s never really adopted a future support strategy in the past. And if Apple intended for the 5 to access future LTE networks, why didn’t it add 2.6 GHz support? Those networks are going up live in Europe as I type.

  6. Huh.

    But since nobody is deploying packet voice over LTE yet, when you make a phone call with your iPhone 5, you’re still using GSM/3G voice right? So how realistic is it for AT&T to re-purpose their 3G spectrum?

    2G I understand…

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi fanfoot, I’m just as surprised as you are. I guess if they move a lot of data traffic to LTE (and the new iPhone will definitely help), they can look at repurposing repurposing 3G. But as you point out they’re voice traffic isn’t going down. I suppose they could try to move more voice traffic to 3G and then use old GSM for LTE. We’ll see.

  7. i believe both metropcs and leap are planning to deploy LTE on PCS spectrum in at least some markets. both companies are potential takeover targets for at&t and/or potential roaming partners on LTE.

    i somehow doubt that leap buying from verizon 700mhz in the band at&t has been building lte on and has a shortage of in chicago is a coincidence. i also doubt leap would build a 700mhz lte network for only one city.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Tom, you are correct. MetroPCS is using PCS as well as AWS and Leap has said it plans to refarm PCS for LTE in the future. In either case, neither would use the AT&T iPhone. Instead they would use the Verizon/Sprint one which has stated support for PCS.

      As tor the 700 MHz spectrum, Leap has a different band than AT&T in lower 700 MHz and right now they’re incompatible unless the FCC forces interoperability.

  8. Julius Muller

    AT&T and others (this goes for broadband service providers too) have to keep updating their networks in order to keep up with international standards. We are behind much of Europe, so it’s therefore in Apple’s best interest to make products compatible with these infrastructure expansions.

    Oh and what is obvious about the difference between the iPhone 4s and iPhone 5 is the height. So you’ll need a new case if you’re intent on getting a new phone.

    Here’s a nice on that functions as a wallet, case and stand for the iPhone 5:

    • Derek Kerton

      Thanks for the advertising spam, hidden in a dumb comment.

      “We are behind much of Europe”. Are you referring to the fact that we have two-year old, screaming fast LTE networks, and most of Europe is a year away from having them (aside from the Nordics)?

      • Derek Kerton

        “He obviously was referring to the Nordics.”

        @24 Ya think? He didn’t say that, though, did he? He said “we are behind MUCH of Europe.”

        And the Nordics have 25 million residents, a 3.3% share of the EU’s 740 million. That’s not really representative of Europe, is it? Certainly it isn’t “much of Europe”. And I was being generous when I carved out “the Nordics” because, really, only one carrier launched LTE before Verizon: TeliaSonera, and they only covered the few major cities in their network. That was impressive, no doubt, but let’s also note that TeliaSonera only offered it on modems, and their first LTE phone was in 2012…yeah, long AFTER the USA. And that was the first LTE phone marketed in all of Europe. Here’s an article that may set you right:

        Meanwhile Verizon LTE covers 371 cities and 75% of the U.S. population. But AT&T also has LTE, Sprint has had 4G OFDM WiMAX for years and now has LTE, MetroPCS has had LTE for over a year, etc. etc. The USA auctioned off our LTE exTV spectrum in 2007, years ahead of other regions, most of which still have not migrated their TV to digital. So, your comment ranks down there with Julius’.

        The USA has been a cellular laggard in eras past, but it is a leader today. We are ahead in digital dividend spectrum management, ahead in innovative secondary incentive markets for spectrum re-allocation, ahead in all 4G network technologies, ahead in white spaces, we produce 3 of the top mobile OSes, the top search engines, the top speech recognition engines, we produce a large portion of the sector’s start-up and innovation, and its mobile content. To say “we are behind Europe”, you’d have to have been under a rock for 12 years, and have emerged mostly stoned.

        BTW, I have no problem with the USA coming second, third or fourth. Geez, I’m used to much worse when I look at global rankings of education, health, happiness, etc. I also encourage Europe to break ahead again, and take the lead in the future. I don’t care where innovations happen, just so long as it happens.

        Lookat that. You wrote 7 words, and I offered you a clinic in return. You’re welcome.