Guess what, Apple? There’s life outside the US. Yes, I know that’s hard to believe sometimes, but it’s true. Take LTE for example. Apple’s new iPad comes in two different cellular models – one for AT&T customers and the other for Verizon customers. That’s because the two carriers operate LTE at different frequencies and have different fall-back legacy technologies. But if you are going to market these products globally, you need to understand that there are many different LTE frequency bands in use, and in most parts of the world your expensive LTE hardware will be utterly useless.
Apple continues to make mistakes with its lack of experience in the wireless sector, as it finally acknowledges that not all LTE networks are compatible. It follows its less-than-complete understanding of antenna technology with the iPhone 4 model and shows that even the mighty Apple is prone to make the odd mistake or two (disclaimer: I’m a big admirer of Apple and use many Apple products and services, but this time they’ve made one heck of a mistake).
So what happened with its iPad? Basically, the chipsets in the two models only support US-friendly frequencies – a fact not adequately disclosed in Apple’s marketing material, which simply described the models as “wifi+4G” and promoting the inclusion of LTE.
The result? Angry purchasers of the iPad in Australia, who couldn’t get their expensive devices to work with Telstra’s LTE network. Why? Because Telstra runs its network on a different frequency band to that of the US. Which is when the Australian government’s consumer protection agency, the Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), became involved and took Apple to Federal Court in Melbourne claiming alleged contraventions of the Australian Consumer Law:
“The ACCC alleges that Apple’s recent promotion of the new ‘iPad with WiFi + 4G’ is misleading because it represents to Australian consumers that the product ‘iPad with WiFi + 4G’ can, with a SIM card, connect to a 4G mobile data network in Australia, when this is not the case.”
The ACCC sought a ruling to ensure consumers are made aware of the correct technical capabilities of the iPad, as well as “injunctions, pecuniary penalties, corrective advertising and refunds to consumers affected”.
Apple responded by providing an undertaking to the Court that by the end of today (April 5) it would correct its promotional materials online and in stores, as well as contact purchasers by email and offer refunds. The new website wording now reads:
“This product supports very fast cellular networks. It is not compatible with current Australian 4G LTE networks and WiMAX networks.”
“Very fast networks” eh? That’s a nice bit of waffle. Meanwhile, a court hearing is scheduled for April 16 and a further date to assess potential liabilities set for May 2.
Australia wasn’t the only country to join the US iPad launch date on March 16, there was also the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore – jointly responsible for 3 million sales in the first three days. And with more countries receiving stocks, the LTE issue is not going away. Despite a very small change in the boilerplate text on its website, Apple is persisting with the “WiFi + 4G” nomenclature for the cellular version of the iPad.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, this is yet another result of the inaccurate and lazy use of the term 4G – we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, the ITU should have never, ever acceded to the demands of certain companies and back-tracked on its definition of 4G. It should have kept 4G for LTE-Advanced technology (and its enhanced WiMAX equivalent, if anyone is still bothering to go down this route) and not allowed it to be used for basic LTE or HSPA+. We are now seeing the confusion from this misguided move.
But it also underlines the fragmented nature of LTE and the spectrum bands it needs to operate within globally.
The 3GPP has currently defined 43 separate spectrum bands that will be used for LTE. Yes, 43… These bands support the evolved UMTS Terrestrial Radio Access Network (eUTRAN) air interface, as part of the 3GPP’s standards work.
Of course not all frequencies will be available in all countries, that’s the point – limited spectrum availability for LTE has resulted in this messy mix.
But there are some core frequency bands that will prove more popular than others. The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) defines these as ‘prime bands’, and they are 2.6GHz, 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 700MHz (although to confuse the situation even more, the 700MHz band actual comprises multiple separate bands in the 700MHz region…). Moves are afoot within the supplier community to create LTE products that can support all of these frequencies as a minimum compatibility requirement. This is also being driven by some LTE mobile operators that require any LTE equipment or device on its network support some or all these prime bands. For example, TeliaSonera requires LTE devices support 2.6GHz, 800MHz and 1.8GHz.
The 2.6GHz and 800MHz bands are the two most wanted frequency bands in Europe. Four out of the five of the major EU economies have auctioned LTE licences at 2.6GHz (yes, you guessed it, the missing country is the UK… cut down more trees, write more reports, let the bureaucrats rule). The 800MHz spectrum is the so-called digital divide band – re-farmed to LTE from the analogue TV switch-over.
So the advice to manufacturers from the GSA is ensure that your devices support the four prime bands – 2.6GHz, 800MHz, 1.8GHz and 700MHz. This will give you coverage of the US and Europe. But if you want to support (or offer roaming) to other markets, then need to cover more bands. How many more depends on how far you want to go.
Qualcomm appears to be leading the way with providing assistance to device manufacturers with multi-band chipsets. In February it announced its new Gobi ‘embedded data connectivity reference platform for mobile devices’ (what’s wrong with chipset?), that not only covers both TDD and FDD flavours of LTE, but provides support (so far unspecified) for “regional LTE frequencies”.
Then we get to the next bit: support for fallback support to legacy technology, and this is increasingly HSPA (which in itself is multiband) and then EDGE (quad band). In all, the number of different frequencies that a new LTE device must operate at – if it is to be a viable, global product – is vast. No wonder even Apple came a cropper.
To make a confusing story even more complicated, not all countries have finalised their LTE spectrum allocations. For example, South Korea was quick to offer up spectrum to LTE, but it was in a band unique to the country. Now though, it is planning to open up spectrum in one of the prime bands, therefore making roaming and global compatibility easier. The reason Telstra’s LTE network operates at 1.8GHz is because the digital dividend frequencies weren’t ready when Telstra wanted to launch the service (in September 2011, the same month as AT&T in the US). Then there are other odd examples, such as the London-based UK Broadband, which claims it will offer LTE at a very unusual 3.5GHz… despite no commercial devices yet being available that operate this high up the spectrum.
Also in the UK, in March the regulator Ofcom released a 94-page discussion document (we used to be a nation of shop-keepers, now the UK is a nation of bureaucrats) to consider making 700MHz available for LTE services… having still not agreed an auction for 2.6GHz. Australia, New Zealand and India are also planning on using 700MHz, following the lead taken in the US. Then there was the resolution at the 2012 World Radio Conference (WRC 12), whereby 700MHz could be cleared via a second digital dividend for LTE use across Africa sometime after 2015, and which will probably extend to the Middle East and Europe.
Hopefully, though, we should start to see some spectrum consolidation and a shift to a more manageable number of frequency bands. Couple this with the work that chipset companies are doing with multiband support, and life should get easier for vendors – and their customers.
According to Alan Hadden, president of the GSA, there are now 57 commercial LTE networks in 32 countries. In addition, 63 manufacturers have announced a total of 347 LTE-enabled user devices:
“The main growth trend in 2012 so far is the launch of LTE-capable smartphones and tablets. The number of smartphones has increased by one third since January 2012, and the number of LTE-capable tablets increased 72 per cent in the same period.”
The GSA adds that the majority of LTE user devices today (170) support the 700MHz bands where LTE networks and services are developing fastest, especially in North America. As European networks come on line, more devices on the other prime bands will appear. In addition to the 170 devices that support 700MHz, the GSA report that there are 94 devices that support 2.6GHz (eUTRAN band 7), 75 devices support 1.8GHz (band 3) and 72 devices support 800MHz (band 20). Of these, 57 offer ‘full European’ support across all three bands (7, 3 and 20).
And so we return to Apple. Yes, it made a mistake, but it won’t be the last device vendor to be caught out by the horrendous mess that is LTE’s operating spectrum. Advice for other vendors? Do your homework, don’t make assumptions, and please, be extremely clear about your product’s compatibility. Simply offering a device as being “LTE” is not good enough. It’s insulting to your customers and will make you look foolish.
Advice to the standards bodies and regulatory authorities? You messed up “4G”, so it’s your responsibility clean up the mess and impose stricter controls on claims of “LTE compatibility”.
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