Apple shows the LTE love, going for near global 4G support in the iPhone 5s and 5c

LTE graphic logo

Apple isn’t skimping on the radios for its new “budget” iPhone, the 5c. At its official unveiling Apple said both it and the new 5s would support more LTE bands than any other smartphone in the world. And it wasn’t kidding. Accompanying the new device’s launch is a long list of 17 bands covering most of the world’s commercially deployed 4G networks.

But it looks like the one carrier everyone was holding their breath for, China Mobile will have to wait. Ironically, while the new iPhones will support the carrier’s forthcoming LTE networks, they don’t support the unique Chinese flavor of CDMA China Mobile uses for 3G. Unless Apple plans on unveiling a new device specifically for China Mobile tomorrow at its separately planned Chinese media event, it looks like this is one iPhone rumor that will turn out false.

The rest of the world, including other Chinese carriers, is pretty much covered though. Apple isn’t actually achieving this kind of global reach in a single device. It’s producing multiple variants of its two new iPhones – just as it did last year for the iPhone 5. Instead of three variants, both the 5s and 5c have four variants each, touting band plans targeting different regions of the world. Apple is even offering support in one of those iPhone sets for time-division LTE (TD-LTE), a different configuration of the LTE standard that will allow the iPhone to work on future 4G networks in China, India, Australia, the Middle East and Africa and other parts of Asia. (Sprint’s forthcoming TD-LTE deployment, as of yet, is not supported.)

iPhone 5 event Phil Schiller

Apple was late to the LTE party, which made sense given its strategy of making globally appealing devices. By the time the iPhone 5 arrived last year, LTE had really only established a firm beachhead in North America and several Asian countries. Consequently it had limited support for LTE bands outside of those countries. Most notably snubbed were many European operators and the new TD-LTE networks in Asia.

But Apple has closed the gap with the launch of this year’s line. The iPhone 5S and 5C will be pan-European phones. Apple has made variants of both devices that will target all three major European 3G bands: 800 MHz, 1800 MHz, and 2.6 GHz. And though there are several operators in Asia and Europe that aren’t on Apple’s list of LTE-supported carriers, many of their networks are still in the trial stages, which means they could tap the phones’ 4G radios when their networks launch.

iPhone 5CTwo operators notably not on the list of LTE support are NTT DoCoMo and China Mobile. While NTT DoCoMo will get its both new iPhones – its first – on Sept. 20, apparently they won’t support the carrier’s numerous specialty LTE bands. (Update: NTT DoCoMo will have LTE on it’s iPhone after all. Apple Wednesday evening updated its international LTE support page to include the Japanese mobile giant.)

China Mobile, the world’s largest operator, could eventually attach the TD-LTE iPhones to its future 4G networks, but without a commitment from Apple to support its 3G TD-SCDMA networks you won’t see it offering the iPhone any time soon.

Apple also got within spitting distance of building an iPhone that will work across all major U.S. networks. AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are getting the same set of devices. The lone rider here is Sprint, which due to its LTE launch in the PCS band will share the 5s and 5c with Japan’s KDDI and its new parent SoftBank.

But Apple threw Sprint a big bone in this latest refresh. Its variant will support the new LTE network Sprint is launching over its old Nextel iDEN spectrum later this year. That means Sprint iPhone users will be able to tap into two of its three LTE networks, though they’ll have to wait to get access to the enormous potential capacity of Sprint’s planned TD-LTE network.

The 5 and the 5S themselves support up 100 Mbps on the downlink, despite the fact that there are already 150 Mbps LTE networks popping up around the world. Still Apple is going for reach here, so it can afford to wait out another iPhone refresh cycle before upgrading its chips to faster speeds. The important thing is more people get access to multi-megabit 4G connections, rather than optimizing the device for the most advanced networks.

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