AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T), Sprint (NYSE: S), T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) and UK operator EE support a new SIM card for Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 that lets customers switch between carriers. Although Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) will provide wireless service for Apple's new tablets, it is not listed as a supporter of the new Apple SIM card.
A SIM card that lets customers switch between carriers gives Apple more control in its relationship with carriers. The practical implication is that customers will not need to buy a different SIM card to switch service to a different carrier. As GigaOM notes though, it's unclear how the provisioning process will work if customers want to switch between carriers.
Apple calls the card an "Apple SIM" and details how it works on a product page for the iPad Air 2, which will be available for pre-order Oct. 17. "The new Apple SIM is preinstalled on iPad Air 2 with Wi-Fi + Cellular models," the company states. "The Apple SIM gives you the flexibility to choose from a variety of short-term plans from select carriers in the U.S. and UK right on your iPad. So whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you--with no long-term commitments. And when you travel, you may also be able to choose a data plan from a local carrier for the duration of your trip."
It's unclear why Verizon is not supporting the Apple SIM. A Verizon spokesman did not immediately have a comment on the matter. According to Re/code, customers can use their new iPad to access Verizon's network but will need a Verizon-issued SIM card to do so.
Apple said "participating carriers are subject to change" regarding the Apple SIM, so presumably more may offer it over time. An Apple spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It appears though that the feature will only be available on iPads bought through Apple. "The experience is different if you are buying an iPad at a T-Mobile store vs. [an] Apple store," T-Mobile said in a statement. "Only iPads bought full price in Apple retail have the carrier selection universal SIM. iPads bought in T-Mobile are 'bound' to T-Mobile's network. The carrier selection feature is not available on these devices."
Similarly, Sprint spokeswoman Michelle Mermelstein said "iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 devices that are sold in Apple and Apple fulfilled channels will contain a new SIM card which allows the consumer to select and switch between service offerings from different carriers, including Sprint."
The Apple SIM appears to be a long time in coming. In 2010, GigaOM reported that Apple was working with SIM-card specialist Gemalto on a SIM card that would let customers choose their carrier when they purchased an iPhone on Apple's website or at an Apple retail store, or buy the phone and activate service through an app in the App Store rather than via a carrier.
In 2011, Orange CEO Stéphane Richard indicated that operators convinced Apple not to go ahead with so-called eSIM cards that would let customers move between carriers. "All of us [the mobile operators] told them it was a bad idea because the SIM card was a critical piece of the security and authentication process," he said. "It would be very difficult for a telco or operator to manage the customer relationship. I think that they understood this point."
Apple's iPad Air 2 is listed as supporting the LTE networks of AT&T, Bluegrass Cellular, Cellcom, C Spire Wireless, GCI, GTA, Nex-Tech, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular (NYSE:USM) and Verizon. The iPad mini 3 supports those carriers as well, but the iPad Air 2 appears to support more LTE bands than the cheaper iPad mini 3, such as Band 41 for TD-LTE in the 2.5 GHz band, which is a critical band for Sprint.
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Article updated Oct. 17 with comments from T-Mobile and Sprint.