Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) newest iPhones, the iPhone 5s and 5c, don't yet work on China Mobile's TD-LTE network, but that could be changing, as a Chinese regulator gave the final license necessary for the iPhone to run on company's mobile networks. China Mobile is the world's largest operator, with around 740 million customers.
Apple claims its new iPhones support more LTE bands than any smartphone in the world. Indeed, according to Apple's updated LTE webpage, the devices do support more LTE bands than the iPhone 5 did, including Band 7 (2.6 GHz) and Band 20 (800 MHz), which should benefit more European operators.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the website of China's Telecom Equipment Certification Center showed on Wednesday that Apple received what is known as a "network access license" for a handset resembling the iPhone that runs on the mobile standards used by China Mobile for 3G and TD-LTE networks. Apple's iPhone 5c model A1529 and iPhone 5s model A1530 both support TD-LTE in Bands 38, 39 and 40 (2.6 GHz, 1900 MHz and 2.3 GHz, respectively). Those are the bands China Mobile has authorized for its TD-LTE network thus far.
Apple announced that No. 2 carrier China Unicom and No. 3 China Telecom will offer the new iPhones. A formal deal with China Mobile has not yet been announced, but the regulatory approval suggests one is close at hand.
In the United States, the new iPhones support the existing LTE networks of Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T), Sprint (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS). The phones support the 700 MHz bands used by Verizon and AT&T, the 1900 MHz band (Band 25) used by Sprint and the 1700 MHz band (Band 4) used by T-Mobile. U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) has said it will launch the iPhone later this year using 850 MHz spectrum (Band 5), which is supported in Apple's new iPhones.
Apple lists support for several LTE 800 MHz bands (Band 18, 19, 20 and 26) but it's not clear if that includes Sprint's planned 800 MHz LTE buildout. Sprint has said in the late third quarter it will begin deploying LTE service on the 800 MHz spectrum it previously used for iDEN services.
A Sprint spokeswoman declined to comment on the issue. However, in the past, Sprint executives have made clear they will use Band 26 for the company's 800 MHz LTE deployment.
What is unclear is if or when Apple will add TD-LTE support for Band 41, which lies in 2.5 GHz spectrum and will be used for commercial TD-LTE service by both China Mobile and Sprint. Sprint obtained 2.5 GHz spectrum via its acquisition of Clearwire. As The Verge notes, China Mobile has said starting next year it will require its TD-LTE devices to support Band 41.
In the United States, Sprint would definitely benefit from the addition of TD-LTE support in the iPhone. Sprint plans to use Clearwire's 2.5 GHz spectrum for a nationwide TD-LTE rollout to complement its existing FDD-LTE service on 1900 MHz and its planned 800 MHz deployment. Steve Elfman, president of network operations at Sprint, said that beginning in 2014, all of the carrier's devices will be capable of operating on 2.5 GHz TD-LTE spectrum, which will increase the speed and capacity of Sprint's devices.
As for the iPhone? "We can't confirm anything on the iPhone at this time or anytime," Elfman said on Sprint's second-quarter earnings conference call in late July, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "So take my comments to all the other devices this point in time and we'll wait to see what Apple does in the future."
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Article updated Sept. 11 at 11:50 a.m. ET with additional information about China Mobile's TD-LTE networks and Sprint's 800 MHz LTE deployment.