Will the iPhone 5 Be a North American Roamer?

When Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)'s Long Term Evolution (LTE) iPhone hits the shelves in the U.S., it may have an easier time traveling abroad then jumping networks within the 50 states.

It's still not necessarily a technology issue holding back roaming, either, nor is it Apple's fault. Business relationships among carriers in the U.S. is the biggest reason the iPhone 5 will likely not be a local roamer, says The Linley Group analyst Linley Gwennap.

"When you buy a phone from a carrier, they have the last word with what you can do with it," Gwennap says. "Even if Apple builds in certain capabilities in the phone, it's up to the carriers to support them."

The iPhone 4S uses Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s MDM6610 chip, which supports both Verizon Wireless and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S)'s CDMA bands and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile US Inc. 's GSM networks. The next iteration of chips, which the iPhone 5 will presumably use, include both networks, as well as LTE and even China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL)'s variant of TD-SCDMA. (See Qualcomm Not Holding Up LTE iPhone.)

The problem, however, is that different carriers use different radio frequencies that may not be in the chip. And, if they are, the phone could lack the RF front end to switch between them. And then, even if both those hurdles are cleared in the iPhone 5, the wireless operators would have to allow for that switching to occur. That's not something they want to do, since they'd potentially lose their customers to other networks.

Going global
Global roaming should be a different story though. Both AT&T and Verizon have made using data abroad more palatable with new, cheaper rate plans. And, as Gwennap points out, the mentality of going abroad and "disconnecting" for vacation is a thing of the past thanks to smartphones. Customers are putting pressure on the carriers to support reasonable bands, he says. (See A Roaming Holiday.)

For Verizon, which operates 3G CDMA bands, global roaming was always a trickier proposition. But its recently acquired Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum will make it much easier for it to roam in Canada and Asia too. (See Verizon Wireless's Spectrum Deals Sail Through , MetroPCS: AWS Could Be 4G Roaming Choice and 5 Ways the Verizon Spectrum Deal Could Affect You.)

Even so, the options for an LTE phone that's also a global roamer are slim. AT&T offers several LTE/GSM global roamers including the Samsung Corp. Galaxy Note, but Verizon only has the Moto RAZR MAXX, and Sprint only has the international Moto Phonton Q LTE. The new Samsung Galaxy S III isn't even enabled for global roaming on Verizon, although some users are finding risky workarounds to take it abroad. (See iPhone 5: Apple Can Have 4G But Not the World.)

So, with cheaper options for consumers, the promise of extra revenue when its customers go off the grid, lack of competitive threat and a global standard to boot, why isn't LTE synonymous with global roamer? (See Verizon Eyes LTE Roaming in Europe, Canada and The Myth of LTE Global Roaming.)

The cost of including all the different LTE radios and the desire to keep smartphones slim and compact are two reasons, Gwennap says. But, he also expects the tides to start changing. Qualcomm's Gobi chipset includes enough bands for phones to work in the U.S. and most parts of Europe and Asia, so that should ease traveling woes for most upcoming handsets, including the iPhone 5. (See Qualcomm: Multi-Band Chips Will Take LTE Global .)

"What Apple will probably do is support some of the local LTE frequencies in each geography and if you take your phone to a different location, it may fall back to 3G to connect to the network," Gwennap says. "You could still get roaming in, but not at the same speed."

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

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