When Apple (s aapl) built the iPhone 5, it was forced to give up its single device strategy and build different versions of the iPhone for different regions and different carriers. The reason was the enormous fragmentation in LTE bands — every carrier seems to be using a different 4G frequency — and there’s no way standard antenna rigs in phones can support every single one of them.
It’s a problem that doesn’t just plague Apple but also every handset vendor looking to support multiple LTE frequencies in addition to the usual complement of 2G and 3G bands. Smart antenna maker SkyCross, however has started shipping a new super antenna that can tune to as many 12 frequencies. Given that there are about 40 identified LTE frequencies, SkyCross’s new VersiTune-LTE antenna won’t produce the universal 4G phone, but it will get handset makers a lot closer, said John Marshall, VP of business development and marketing.
“You could use it, for instance, to create a single phone that could work on every North American LTE networks,” Marshall said. That’s no small feat. North America is the most fragmented region of the all. AT&T(s t), Verizon(s vz)(s vod), Sprint(s s), T-Mobile and Clearwire(s clwr) are all launching their networks on different frequency bands, and as they start expanding their 4G networks into supplemental spectrum that mishmash of bands is going to become even more complex.
SkyCross is utilizing a design that it has developed called isolated Mode Antenna Technology (iMAT). By accessing different “feedpoints” on the structure, iMAT antennas can not only tune themselves to different frequency, but also can function as multiple antennas that can simultaneously receive different signals. That’s important because increasingly complex LTE and LTE-Advanced technologies require multiple radio links to the network.
To build fatter wireless pipes, operators are using a technique called carrier aggregation, which in essence bonds together two blocks of spectrum in disparate bands. For instance, Verizon plans to glue 2100 MHz frequencies onto its current network, which residing way down in the 700 MHz band. To accomplish that, the phone will have to tap into both bands simultaneously. Marshall said the VersiTune will be the first antenna specifically designed for LTE-Advanced carrier aggregation.
SkyCross plans to officially unveil the new design next week at CES, and the antenna will start making it into phones this year. Ultimately these kind of active antennas could help Apple move back to a single iPhone manufacturing model — or at least minimize the number of different iPhones it must make. Apple, though, isn’t a customer, though Marshall said he’s working on that. SkyCross already works with some of the biggest handset makers in the world, including the dominant Samsung, but it does face competition from other active antenna makers like Ethertronics and WiSpry.
Featured mage courtesy Flickr user Horia Varlan.