Shiny toys and hard choices – Mobile World Live

Shiny toys and hard choices

18 SEP 2012

So who were those 2 million over-excitable fools who “pre-ordered” the iPhone 5 last Friday?

Well, I was one of them. Should a tech pundit with my esteemed reputation (*cough*) really confess to such a thing? Surely I should remain above the fray, casting a superior eye over the great unwashed as they compliantly hand over their hard-earned dollars for the latest shiny toy from Cupertino? Sadly not.

I have two main planks to my defence. Firstly, I needed a new phone. I have used an iPhone as my main device since the first generation model, but my contract lifecycles have always been out of sync with Apple’s iPhone refreshes. To rectify this, I have stuck with my iPhone 3GS – a device launched in the last decade – long after its contract period expired. A recently cracked screen has added to its decrepitude; truth be told, I had been counting the days until I could “preorder” its distant successor. 

My second mitigating factor relates to the fact that the new iPhone will, for the first time, support LTE. Nothing ground-breaking about that, but coupled with the news that 4G is set to arrive in my hometown of London before year-end – coincidently (or not) an announcement made the day before the iPhone 5 was unveiled – and suddenly Long Term Evolution has become a very near-term proposition.

The situation demonstrates how Apple has upped its influence in the industry by another notch. It has launched three different versions of the iPhone 5 to support LTE networks running at different frequencies across its major markets – but it has not been able to support every 4G network worldwide. Indeed, the device will prove significantly divisive in Europe. The regional model will support LTE at 1800MHz, good news for those operators able to launch 4G networks using refarmed 2G/3G spectrum, but not at 800MHz or 2600MHz where many LTE deployments in the region are occurring.

Apple, presumably, has no interest in influencing the winners and losers in Europe’s 4G operator landscape; it wants its devices in the hands of as many consumers as possible, so will no doubt be frustrated that a lack of spectrum harmonisation is preventing it from doing so. European operators without the compatible 4G frequencies will be able to offer the iPhone 5 over 2G and 3G networks, though that may be akin to buying a Porsche and never getting beyond second gear. And especially frustrating if they have 4G running elsewhere.  

In the UK, the situation has served to inflame an already heated stand-off between operators. Market-leader Everything Everywhere (EE) was given approval from regulator Ofcom to use its existing 1800MHz spectrum for LTE just a few weeks prior to launching its new 4G brand. Rivals without such spectrum holdings – notably the UK arms of Vodafone and O2 – had already voiced concerns that such a situation that could see the market leader launch LTE up to a year ahead of everyone else. The fact that EE is also now set to be the only one to offer a flavour of LTE supporting the iPhone for the foreseeable future is unlikely to defuse the situation.

No one party is to blame for such regulatory entanglements. Spectrum holdings get passed on via waves of mergers and acquisitions and can often end up being unevenly allocated, inadvertently creating winners and losers. Take the example of 3 UK. Recently it was expressing concerns about being squeezed out of the UK’s upcoming 4G spectrum auctions altogether; it now finds itself the recipient of a sizable chunk of EE’s precious 1800MHz airwaves (a prior condition of EE’s earlier merger between T-Mobile UK and Orange UK), and in a position to switch on iPhone 5–compatible LTE services next year.

Faced with a choice between letting the UK fall further behind in 4G or upsetting market equilibrium, Ofcom was probably right to let EE go ahead – though legal challenges aimed at torpedoing the launch remain a very real possibility.

The uncomfortable truth is that many consumers are now tied up in their own smartphone ecosystems to such a degree that the days of switching contracts because of network differentiators may be numbered. This is especially true of those, like me, “locked in” to the Apple world and where decisions such as which LTE bands to support will determine to whom I pay my £38 a month for the next two years.

Two million of us can’t be wrong after all.

Matt Ablott

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members

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Justin Springham

Justin manages the editorial content for the Mobile World Live portal and award-winning Mobile World Live TV service. In the last few years Justin has launched and grown a portfolio of premier media products, which include the Mobile World Congress...

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