Apple still restricting iPhone 5 to approved LTE networks

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Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) vetting of operators' LTE networks is apparently quite widespread, at least as far smaller operators are concerned. Tajikistan's leading operator, Babilon-Mobile, has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to activate iPhone 5 handsets on its LTE network, according to Jafar Asimov, head of the operator's automation department.

Asimov told telecoms.com that Babilon realized it has a problem when iPhone 5 owners, who likely brought their own devices to the network, complained that they could not connect to the operator's LTE network, which was activated in October after the company refarmed its former 2G spectrum in the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands.

Model A1429 (GSM) of the iPhone 5 supports LTE in Band 1 (2100 MHz), Band 3 (1800 MHz) and Band 5 (850 MHz), but Babilon has discovered that even its own techs cannot activate LTE connectivity on an iPhone 5 without Apple's intervention. "There is no information available about activating LTE," Asimov said. "We got no help and no response from Apple on this."

Rumors have circulated in recent months regarding Apple's alleged insistence that candidates' networks first pass its own independent testing of their LTE network's performance before it will enable LTE functionality on the iPhone 5 units on their network. Apple did not reply to FierceBroadbandWireless' request for information regarding the existence of this apparent network-vetting program and the parameters that operators must satisfy before Apple will authorize iPhone 5 smartphones to access their LTE networks.

It is unclear whether Apple's LTE-network approval mechanism would keep customers of an approved LTE network from using LTE on their iPhone 5 if they roam onto an LTE network that has received Apple's blessing. It seems likely that the vetting program would keep those roamers' iPhones off of LTE and restrict them to a 2G or 3G network.

Asimov thinks he understands how Apple controls the iPhone 5 LTE network access. He suggested the iPhone 5 communicates with an Apple server, which holds a list of approved PLMN (public land mobile network) codes encompassing a country code and network code. Each mobile operator has its own PLMN code, and the codes are overseen by each nation's regulator. If a particular PLMN code is included in Apple's whitelist of preferred LTE networks, then when an iPhone 5 comes online on that network, the handset automatically reveals an LTE switch on its settings panel, Asimov told telecoms.com.

Babilon's is not the first confirmed report of an LTE-vetting program. Swisscom was the first mobile operator to publicly verify the practice, with a spokesman telling telecoms.com last month, "Apple only enables 4G access after testing their device on an operator's live network."

Swisscom, Switzerland's largest telco, launched LTE at the end of November in the 800, 1800 and 2600 MHz bands.

Apparently Apple's LTE restrictions apply primarily to smaller carriers--Babilon has 3 million customers--in relatively smaller markets rather than, say, carriers with small LTE networks in large markets. For example, the iPhone 5 launched with full support for Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) fledgling LTE network, which Sprint recently said has reached 43 U.S. markets.

Apple--which only released its first LTE-enabled handset, the iPhone 5, in September--has already gobbled up a 26.7 percent share of the global LTE handset market, according to a recent Strategy Analytics report, which was cited by South Korea's Yonhap News.

Samsung saw its LTE global market share slip from 50.9 percent in 2012's second quarter to 40 percent in the third quarter, according to the report.

For more:
- see this telecoms.com article
- see this Yonhap News article

Related articles:
Apple: No LTE-enabled iPhone 5 for carriers till we say so
Apple sells 26.9M iPhones, misses analysts' expectations
Analysts: Apple's iPhone 5 leaves out many European LTE operators
iPhone 5: Even if you never heard of LTE before, you will now
Verizon, AT&T and Sprint each get LTE iPhone 5

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