Apple memorably launched the iPhone 3GS with the slogan 'this changes everything'. It really should have kept that line for the iPhone 5 launch. Now that Apple has thrown 4G into the iPhone's mix, the UK mobile landscape is about to be held up by the ankles and given an epic shaking.
The seismic 4G ructions coming our way are not going to make life easier for mobile lovers, certainly not in the short term. And if you're the sort of gadget junkie who likes to buy early to bag yourself the shiniest mobiles -- and preferably also SIM-free, so you can roam freely from one network to the next -- then times are definitely a-changin'. Prepare to learn a whole lot more about 4G spectrum frequencies in the coming months.
Getting the bands back together
The iPhone 5 is Apple's first phone to add support for 4G, which is also known as LTE. But the iPhone 5 only supports the 1,800MHz band -- which effectively means it's an EE-branded iPhone 5 right now. It'll work just dandy on all the other UK networks, but you'll only get 4G on EE.
Future 4G networks built by rival operators O2 and Vodafone won't be compatible with this version of the iPhone 5 because they're going to run 4G networks in different spectrum bands (800MHz and 2.6GHz).
1,800MHz is the band EE (formerly known as Everything Everywhere) has chosen to build its 4G network in -- a network it's hoping to launch in "a matter of weeks". It's also pretty safe to assume that the UK's smallest operator, Three, will launch a 1,800MHz-based 4G network next year -- it's acquired two tranches of 1,800MHz spectrum from EE.
So the iPhone 5 should also work on Three's 4G network in 2013 (a Three spokeswoman tells me, "technically yes, it's a 4G enabled phone, so it will work on our 4G network").
EE means Effectively Exclusive
But EE is the only operator with a plan to offer 4G this year -- which puts it in the pretty position of having a defacto monopoly on the iPhone 5. Anyone who's buying Apple's latest iPhone to get faster mobile speeds this year will have to use it on EE's network.
"This will effectively recreate exclusivity around the iPhone that we have not seen in most countries since the iPhone's early years," says Ian Fogg, analyst at IHS Screen Digest. "The iPhone 5's uneven LTE support will alter the competitive position for mobile operators. Those without LTE networks or with LTE networks on incompatible frequencies will suffer."
Mobile buyers are also likely to suffer confusion as they wrangle with all the different spectrum bands and try to figure out which 4G phones are compatible with which 4G networks. Apple has tried to clarify the 4G tangle by creating a page that lists the three iPhone 5 models it's currently making, and the bands they each support.
If you want to buy an iPhone 5 that's futureproofed to work on all the UK's 4G networks -- well, you're out of luck right now. You'll have to hope Apple will make a multi-band version of the phone in future (no guarantees there, of course). Or wait for an additional version of the phone that includes support for different UK spectrum bands.
The iPhone 5 model currently heading to the UK is the GSM model (Model A1429) which supports three frequencies: 850MHz, 1,800MHz and 2,100MHz -- only one of which (1,800MHz) is getting 4G in the near future. Contrast this to Nokia's forthcoming Lumia 920 -- which includes support for the 800MHz, 900MHz, 1,800MHz, 2,100MHz and 2,600MHz bands -- and the iPhone 5's 4G lock-in becomes clearer.
Fogg reckons Apple will create additional iPhone 5 models for the UK market to support other spectrum bands but there may be a wait of up to a year. "Clearly Apple will -- just not immediately," he tells me. "That gives EE a tremendous competitive advantage, whichever way you cut it -- for at least six months and more likely a year."
Matthew Howett, analyst at Ovum, shares Fogg's view. "By supporting LTE using the frequencies that EE are deploying their 4G network over, EE will effectively have an initial monopoly on sales of the iPhone 5, since customers will only fully benefit from its capabilities if they take it through EE," he notes in a statement.
Because 4G is still in the process of being rolled out in many parts of the world, Apple has had little choice but to make multiple versions of the new iPhone, says Fogg. Typically the Californian company likes to keep things simple. 4G is anything but.
"It's clearly around the immaturity of LTE technology," says Fogg when asked why Apple has decided to make three different iPhone 5 models to support different global flavours of 4G.
UK mobile market to be Americanised?
If Apple continues down this path, the UK mobile landscape could end up looking a whole lot more like the US -- where multiple versions of carrier-branded phones are built to support the different 4G spectrum bands in use. Buying SIM-free phones is far less common across the pond, and the end result is it's effectively more difficult for mobile users to switch networks.
The fractured and fragmented nature of 4G could, however, also give Apple's rivals an opportunity to create devices in bands it hasn't yet -- or offer multi-band devices to work across multiple networks, such as the Lumia 920.
"IHS expects that operators with networks that are not able to support the 4G iPhone 5 will increasingly [sell] other 4G smart phones," notes Daniel Gleeson, another analyst at IHS. "This opens opportunities for LTE smart phone makers that have products that support LTE networks that the iPhone 5 does not."
An O2 spokesman also noted it will be ramping up its range of 4G devices to bridge the iPhone 5 gap. "iPhone 5 currently only supports 4G on the 1,800MHz spectrum. However, by the time 4G becomes an all-operator service and is available to everyone in the UK, we would expect a whole range of new devices to have launched that support all UK 4G network frequencies," he said in a statement.
"We will also be selling devices at the end of this year that will be compatible with all 4G frequencies so they will work on our network from launch."
O2 has created a new '4G Phone Promise' policy, which will mean that any customers buying the current iPhone 5 on its network -- and thus missing out on 4G speeds this year -- will be able to upgrade mid-way through their contract in order to switch to a 4G phone (such as an O2-compatible 4G iPhone, say, if Apple makes one). There's only a small discount on buying out the contract though.
Right band? It still might not work
A notable complexity of 4G spectrum is there can be device incompatibility within bands and across the same band deployed across different countries -- so even if the device in your pocket is listed as supporting a particular frequency, it may still not be compatible with that particular use of the frequency. Which explains why Apple is careful to note in the T&Cs on its LTE page that "band support does not guarantee support on all LTE networks running on the same bands".
Apple's small print also notes that unlocked iPhone 5 models "may support LTE networks outside the country of purchase when using a valid SIM from a support carrier" -- so that's a maybe, not a dead cert. I don't advise you to import an iPhone 5 from another country, even if it supports the band you want to use.
All of this spectrum-related complexity means that in parts of the world where 4G is still in the process of being rolled out and established, such as the UK, the scales look like they're being tipped back in favour of the operators -- at the expense of consumer choice. But time will tell, with 4G pricing still to be announced.
In the meantime, if you want to retain the freedom of being able to roam freely across UK networks you can of course just stick with 3G (and SIM-free). Waiting for 4G to grow up a bit and get some stubble on its youthful face may, ultimately, be the best course of action -- especially if you want to avoid the sting of early adopter burn.
One more thing...
There's also the wildcard possibility of O2 and Vodafone throwing a spanner in the iPhone 5 launch by trying to block 4GEE. The pair have made no secret of their outrage at Ofcom's decision to allow EE to reuse its 2G spectrum for 4G this year -- but throw iPhone 5 exclusivity into the mix and their rage might well boil over into legal attempts to derail a 4GEE launch this year.
If the pair were to succeed in scuppering EE's 2012 4G launch, Brit-based mobile lovers could be left in the odd position of owning an iPhone 5 that won't work on any UK 4G networks.
"For Vodafone and O2, who have spoken out against EE's early 4G launch, this could well be what they were waiting for before launching a legal challenge to Ofcom's decision," notes Howett. "The regulator must be fairly confident of its position and has said it will be ready to defend it. The impact the challenge has on EE's launch will crucially depend on whether a court would approve a suspension of service. If so, the reputation to what is only a one-day-old brand could prove fatal."
At the time of writing Vodafone had not responded to a request for comment. Feel free to provide your own comment in the box below, or over on our superfast Facebook page.