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iPhone 5 specs hint at international LTE roaming -- eventually

Stephen Lawson | Sept. 20, 2012
U.S. buyers of the iPhone 5 won't have international LTE roaming when the highly anticipated device hits the street on Friday, but information from Apple, the FCC and carriers offers glimmers of hope that foreign LTE networks will be in reach eventually.

The new iPhone includes Band 3 in both the CDMA and GSM versions of Model A1429. The GSM version is intended for use on Telstra as well as on LTE networks in Germany, the U.K., South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Both versions also include Band 1, which is used by some Asian carriers. In fact, because the FCC's documentation only uses the designation A1429, those two versions may be identical in hardware terms, with different radios activated. Apple did not respond to questions about the model names.

Apple doesn't need FCC approval to build in radios for bands that aren't used in the U.S., according to people familiar with its regulations. That's because cellphones don't "talk" unless a network talks to them first. Placed in any environment, a phone will passively listen for signals from any nearby network it can pick up, and respond if it can, said analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates. By itself, the phone won't pose a threat of interference. So Apple may be selling U.S. consumers an iPhone 5 with activated, fully capable LTE Band 1 and Band 3 radios. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

The bad news is that none of the U.S. iPhone 5 carriers offers international roaming on LTE, at least for now. At launch, iPhone 5 travelers will be limited to using older GSM, HSPA or CDMA networks. One of the carriers, Verizon, did say it plans to add global LTE roaming in the future.

"As there are many LTE frequencies currently being deployed around the world, Verizon will be surveying which markets line up best with the frequencies available in our version of the iPhone 5," spokeswoman Brenda Raney said, via email.

Replacing the phone's SIM card with one from the foreign service provider may not be much of an alternative. Verizon allows any customer in good standing for at least 60 days to unlock their phone and swap in another SIM. However, Sprint said its subscribers could not use another carrier's SIM, and AT&T has another set of restrictions on unlocking. AT&T subscribers have to wait out their two-year contracts, upgrade to a new phone, or pay an early termination fee before the carrier will unlock a phone. There is no unlocked iPhone 5 for sale yet. Apple's use of a new, smaller "nano-SIM" card may also complicate this type of roaming solution.

However, it's likely that wherever they can, carriers ultimately will include LTE data service in their roaming deals, Schoolar said. International data roaming plans typically are denominated in bits.

"There doesn't really seem to be much concern on the part of the operator on how you suck up that amount of data," Schoolar said. "You can suck it up slow with EDGE or fast with LTE."


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