Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone 6 and 6 Plus will support Sprint's (NYSE:S) tri-band LTE Spark service, the carrier confirmed, giving Sprint a much-needed boost since it is relying on Spark to set it apart from other carriers. However, it's unclear how much of an advantage that will give Sprint as it works to deploy the Spark network, especially because the new iPhone does not support carrier aggregation for Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum.
Sprint spokesman Mark Elliott confirmed to FierceWireless the new iPhones will support Sprint Spark. Sprint's Spark service runs on 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz in Band 41 for TD-LTE. China Mobile, with 790 million total subscribers at the end of June, also uses Band 41 for its TD-LTE service, so China Mobile's scale likely swayed Apple to include support for Band 41.
All of Sprint's new LTE phones are Spark-enabled, so it would have been a huge blow if the new iPhone did not have Spark support.
Sprint is banking on the tri-band Spark service to differentiate its network. The carrier said Spark today produces peak downlink speeds of 50-60 Mbps, largely due to the carrier's large trove of 2.5 GHz airwaves. Sprint controls around 120 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in 90 of the top 100 U.S. markets. However, a critical element of the service is Sprint's forthcoming deployment of carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band, which produces wider channels and faster speeds. The LTE modem in the new iPhone 6 and 6 Plus supports carrier aggregation, but Sprint spokesman Doug Duvall confirmed to FierceWireless the phones will not support the two-carrier carrier aggregation Sprint is turning on for 2.5 GHz TD-LTE later this year.
David Owens, Owens, Sprint's senior vice president of product development, told FierceWireless he did not think the absence of carrier aggregation support in the new iPhones would blunt Sprint's momentum, and that Sprint is focused on expanding Spark coverage as much as possible.
"We're excited about launching Spark on the iPhone," he said, adding, "We're very comfortable we'll compete with the average speeds" of Sprint's competitors.
Meanwhile, Sprint expects Spark service to cover 100 million POPs by year-end. By the end of the year, Sprint has said it will deploy two-carrier carrier aggregation on its 2.5 GHz TD-LTE service, producing peak downlink speeds of more than 100 Mbps. Sprint has been seeding its customer base with devices that can take advantage of those capabilities.
Sprint is also working with Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) to accelerate the launch of devices that can take advantage of three-carrier carrier aggregation on its 2.5 GHz TD-LTE service. Those devices will come to market in the first half of 2015. Sprint plans to deploy three-carrier carrier aggregation on its network by the end of 2015, producing peak speeds of 150-180 Mbps.
While Sprint appears to have scored a victory with the bands in the new iPhones, other carriers were not as lucky. The new phones do not appear to support LTE Band 12, or 700 MHz A Block Band Class 12. The phones support LTE Band 13 (700 MHz Upper C Block MHz) and LTE Band 17 (700 MHz Lower B Block), which are used by Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), respectively, for their primary LTE services.
A number of other wireless carriers like T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), C Spire Wireless and U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) own 700 MHz Band 12 spectrum. A spokeswoman for the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents smaller carriers, did not immediately have a comment on the situation, and an Apple spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sprint has said it will add 700 MHz Band 12 capabilities to some of its devices starting next year. Further, AT&T has agreed to support 700 MHz Band 12 as part of the FCC's 700 MHz interoperability agreement announced last year, but it does not appear that the agreement swayed Apple to include Band 12 support.
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Article updated at 4:05 p.m. PT with additional information from Sprint.