Qualcomm, the company that makes many of the components used in iPhones and other smartphones, announced on Thursday a new LTE modem which works with 40 different bands. Their “global LTE” chipset should finally allow Apple to release an iPhone that is compatible with China’s largest operator, China Mobile, as well as other networks worldwide which don’t currently use a chipset compatible with the LTE features in Apple’s iPhone.
As with 3G the Fourth Generation mobile networks that use LTE had no common world standard of bands to use. While the UK largely didn’t suffer from this during the 3G era, other countries such as the USA had operators such as Verizon who couldn’t get the iPhone due to their bands being incompatible. Apple ultimately launched a Verizon version of their iPhone realising what market share they were missing, but for years those tied into Verizon were unable to choose an iPhone or iOS device for their phone.
Existing iPhones come in three types which are compatible with three different kinds of network, two of which are for GSM networks and one for CDMA. If Apple elects to use this chip then in future their could be just a single iPhone chipset meaning you could switch between networks using different technologies without replacing your phone.
LTE is similarly fragmented with dozens of different bandwidths in use today. Perhaps the biggest problem for Apple was China where the market for smartphones and especially iPhones is exploding. While iPhones sell as fast as their appear in stores, they are currently limited to relatively small networks compared with the behemoth of China Mobile. This new chip will finally allow Apple to produce an iPhone that is compatible with China Mobile without forcing them to make a version which is different to all their other phones. The reason Apple haven’t made a phone for this purpose so far is largely because the network used by China Mobile, TD-SCDMA, is relatively obscure by global standards. By some calculations Apple might sell three times as many phones in China if it was able to sell to China Mobile customers, but even with this incentive the cost of producing a unique device has so far prevented them from being on the network. Indeed despite the incompatible faster networks around 15 million iPhones are being run on the slow 2G network China Mobile operates already.
For Apple this means a gigantic opportunity for growth, for ordinary iPhone users it will mean that trip to China (or many other places with networks using bands not currently compatible with the iPhone) the ability to connect to more networks and thus have better coverage.
Of course the chip hasn’t been announced simply with Apple in mind. Other smartphone manufacturers will likely use this chip too, meaning truly global phones are finally available which will be great for consumer choice of network and great for those going on holiday who might see charges for roaming drop due to more competition between networks.