The initial LTE phones were using the bulky, battery-guzzling first generation radios, so Apple said to LTE "I'll pass, thanks." Yesterday, however, Cupertino joined the LTE handset gang with the iPhone 5 announcement, and it's been almost 24 hours without Samsung filing its first LTE patent lawsuit
against it, but let's wait until the handset appears on Korean carriers. We kid, but despite the high expectations for LTE support in the new iPhone, such networks around the world are not what they are cracked up to be justyet.
We won't bore you with much technical details behind Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks, suffice it to say the current iteration allows for up to 100Mbps download speeds, improved reliability, and record upload speeds, not to mention their deployment and precious spectrum utilization for carriers is much less costly than other alternatives. Yet, the world is just now turning to LTE infrastructure, so Apple's iPhone 5 will launch with just around 20 carriers worldwide where it can take advantage of its multiband LTE radio.
As you can see from the table above, Asia uses 1,800MHz and 2,600MHz in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. Japan and the US share the 700MHz or 2,100MHz frequency range, while in Europe they utilize 1,800MHz or 2,600MHz.
Some carriers also run LTE on everything in-between, such as 800MHz and 850MHz, so if we don't get some overarching standard, the iPhone 5's LTE will be incompatible from one network to another, and you will have to make do with 3G or up to 42Mbps theoretical HSPA+ speeds at best.
Europe is the biggest loser here, as just 25% of LTE there operates on the iPhone 5's 1, 800MHz, with the rest deployed or about to be deployed at 800MHz and 2, 600MHz. Here is the list of European carriers which have 1, 800 support:
Bulgaria (Vivacom, M-Tel)
Czech Republic (Telefonica O2)
Croatia (VIPNet, subsidiary of Telekom Austria)
Finland (TeliaSonera, Elisa, DNA)
Germany (Deutsche Telekom)
Hungary (T-Mobile/ Telenor)
Latvia (TeliaSonera/ LMT)
Lithuania (TeliaSonera/ Omnitel)
Poland (Aero2/ Mobyland)
Slovenia (Si.mobil launched, Mobitel to launch in 2012)
United Kingdom (EE)
And those that are about to get it:
So is Apple playing favorites by excluding the world's largest operator by revenue, Vodafone, and other juggernauts like O2 and Telefonica from its LTE frequency compatibility list for now? Could it be it is bringing it back to some European carriers which threatened to cut subsidies
when they heard Cupertino is toying with the idea for a programmable SIM inside the iPhone, so you can just change from one network settings to another with an app download?
Hardly the case, since those complaining carriers were indeed Vodafone, FT and Telefonica, whose LTE frequencies are now excluded in the iPhone 5, but Markus Goebel, a spokesman for O2 Germany in Munich, clarified: "Apple wants to maximize LTE reach for its iPhone and Deutsche Telekom got lucky that the 1,800 MHz frequency is also used by operators in Asia,” and that's that. Moreover, Vodafone Italy is in the final stages of LTE deployment on frequencies that will be compatible with the iPhone 5, as you can see in the quote above, so the band support is just a matter of practicality for Apple.
Does that mean that DT customers, for example, can take their new unlocked iPhones and use them on LTE networks in Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore? Well, the frequency support is there, but that doesn't mean all the specific network settings will be, so we'll see what happens in terms of compatibility.
Putting all LTE frequencies in one device is counterproductive, to the extent that sometimes even motherboard changes have to be made to accommodate all the different bands and interference filters in a radio, so Apple decided to make devices tailored for specific markets, and with the iPhone 5 it seems those are predominantly North America and Asia, where LTE is a much more mature technology.
Furthermore, when more and more carriers finish their LTE deployment, it will be clearer what standard bands set has to be supported for a truly global LTE handset to appear. In the meantime, you get LTE on the iPhone 5 for certain with the 20 or so carriers listed above at launch, and that's that.