Look at Apple’s(s aapl) website for the iPad Air LTE models and you might think that the devices are locked to specific carriers in the U.S. Why? Because the iPad Air purchase page says exactly that: “Your iPad will only work with the carrier you choose.”
Except, that phrase isn’t quite true.
As my colleague Kevin Fitchard wrote last week, there’s only one iPad Air model with LTE for all carriers. Apple was able to accomplish an incredible engineering feat by adding support for 14 LTE bands in one single device. And the devices aren’t subsidized or bought on contract, so they’re not locked to carriers because they’re not subsidized by carriers.
So what’s the deal? Will your iPad only work on the carrier you choose or not? Out of the box, the statement is correct. There aren’t different iPad Air LTE models for different carriers, but if you choose an LTE carrier at time of purchase, your iPad Air comes with a SIM from that carrier. But after that, you can play the field.
I verified this with Apple directly last week and again at my local Apple Store on Friday morning. And then I tested it out in a limited fashion.
This morning, I bought a 32 GB iPad Air with LTE for T-Mobile(s tmus). A T-Mobile nano SIM was already inside the iPad. When I got home, I activated the iPad Air on T-Mobile’s network to start my free 200 MB per month service. I’ll add more if needed. The process went without a hitch.
I then removed the AT&T(s t) nano SIM from my unlocked iPhone 5s as well as the T-Mobile nano SIM from the new iPad Air. I placed the AT&T SIM in the Air and after a few seconds of searching the iPad found AT&T’s LTE network and I began to surf the web. It’s not a perfect test because in a real world situation I’d be using a data only SIM card from AT&T in the iPad Air. Still, between the test and the fact that there’s really only one iPad Air model with LTE, it shows that this new iPad brings more freedom than prior models.
The whole idea behind the multiband support here is for Apple to have one single iPad Air that covers most LTE networks. That’s a cost savings for Apple but it’s also a benefit to consumers who buy the LTE models of Apple’s tablet.
If I’m traveling to an area with limited T-Mobile coverage, for example, I can get a SIM from a different carrier — one with better coverage where I’m heading — and use it in my iPad Air during the trip. If we ever witness a data price war, this could come in handy as well: Just get a SIM from the then-lowest priced carrier for data.
When discussing this with Kevin Fitchard, he raised a good point: It may be more difficult to do with an iPad that comes with a SIM from Verizon(s vz)(s vod) or Sprint(s s). Moving from either of them to GSM carriers — AT&T or T-Mobile — could prove troublesome.
If I could test that I would, but for now, I’ll have to assume that Apple’s information is correct: You can swap out SIMs and use any supported carrier here in the U.S. or abroad as needed for a weekly or monthly amount of data, depending on the operators available plans.
This approach also portends a very interesting potential future for smartphones. Once we move to Voice over LTE, or VoLTE, for all voice services, everything is data. And that means if the devices have radios to support most or all LTE bands, consumers could gain tremendous flexibility in choosing which network to use for their phones. Instead of using the same carrier for a year or two, you could theoretically swap out SIMs on monthly basis due to coverage needs or cost savings.