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At its iPad launch event Thursday, Apple made a big deal about the 20 LTE bands and super-fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi available in the new Air 2. But there was one detail that didn’t make the spotlight, but could have a huge impact on how we buy 4G-connected tablets in the future: The iPad Air 2 contains the first Apple SIM card, a kind of carrier-neutral identity module.
What that means is you don’t have to pick your carrier before you buy a 4G iPad in the U.S. or the U.K. (unless that carrier is [company]Verizon[/company], but I’ll get to that later). The new slate has support for all of the global LTE bands as well as GSM and CDMA networks, so when you first turn on your iPad and try to connect it to a distant tower, Apple will give you a choice of [company]AT&T[/company], [company]T-Mobile US[/company] or [company]Sprint[/company] (in the U.K. it is also supporting [company]Everything Everywhere[/company]).
On the iPad Air 2 site, [company]Apple[/company] said you can chose a short-term plan from any of those carriers before ultimately deciding what 4G service to go with. It’s still unclear whether that means you’ll eventually have to go through another service provisioning process with your carrier or if the Apple SIM will act as a kind of universal mediator between networks and service plans for as long as you own the slate, but the implications of this are big.
First, it means you don’t have tie yourself to specific carrier or category of carriers when you buy a specific model of iPad, and you don’t need to go out and buy a specific carrier’s SIM card to get up and running. And second, it means you could potentially flip flop between carriers on a whim. Most tablet plans these days are sold without contracts so you buy a T-Mobile plan one month and switch to Sprint plan the next. If you’re going to the U.K. for a month, you could switch over to Everything Everywhere as soon as you land at Heathrow Airport.
I use words like “potentially” because we don’t know the exact details of the provisioning process (or the activation fees such flip-flopping might incur). What we do know is that Apple will offer plans out of the box in the U.S. and U.K. models of the slate. Apple has been developing this technology for a while, and what’s most interesting about it is it could eventually lead to Apple becoming your carrier.
If Apple controls the SIM, it could just as easily become a mobile virtual network operator in countries around the world, offering you its own data plans and pricing on tablets (and even voice plans on iPhones). AT&T or Verizon might be running the network in the background, but from the consumers point of view, the service would be all Apple. I’m not saying Apple will do this (there are a lot of headaches to being a carrier), but it’s a possibility.
Now back to Verizon. Have no worries, the iPad Air 2 will still work on Verizon’s networks, it just isn’t yet part of the Apple SIM program it seems. You’ll probably have to buy a separate Verizon version of the device or at least buy a separate Verizon SIM.