Sprint is in advanced testing of an iPhone, possibly for sale this fall, that would run at first on a 3G wireless network rather than on Sprint's faster WiMax, according to recent reports.
Reports that Sprint would get the iPhone have swirled since January, but the company has refused to comment publicly.
However, analysts widely agree that the third-largest U.S. carrier needs to sell the popular smartphone to stay competitive with the nation's two largest carriers, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, both of which offer the iPhone 4.
"Not having an iPhone puts Sprint at a competitive disadvantage," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J.Gold Associates, in an interview today. "Sprint currently doesn't have a 'halo effect' device, even though they have tried with devices like the HTC Evo and now the coming Motorola Photon."
A Sprint iPhone, which would be called the iPhone 4S, would run on Sprint's CDMA-based 3G network, according to a report this week in 9to5Mac, citing unnamed sources. A WiMax version could come later, although it seems more likely that Sprint would adopt LTE wireless for an LTE-ready iPhone, several analysts have noted.
The 9to5Mac report and others said that Apple is rumored to have ordered Sprint-compatible CDMA towers to be installed on its Cupertino, Calif., campus for testing the Sprint iPhones, while Apple is putting together a cellular engineering team in the Kansas City area near Sprint's headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.
In a report on BusinessInsider.com in May, Jeffries analyst Peter Misek said that the iPhone 4S would have the A5 dual-core processor from the iPad 2; would work with the networks of Sprint, T-Mobile USA and China Mobile; and would be HSPA+ capable, although not WiMax-ready. T-Mobile calls its HSPA+ network a 4G network.
Citing three people familiar with the matter, the Reuters news service also reported as early as April that Apple suppliers would begin production of the next iPhone in July, with shipping to start in September.
If Sprint prefers to start out with a 3G version of an iPhone, that might cast doubt on its commitment to WiMax, which is not expected to be deployed as widely globally as a next-generation wireless technology compared with LTE, Gold said. "Sprint's commitment to WiMax is solid, is what Sprint tells the world, but they are interested in LTE, too, I guarantee you," he said. "Right now, WiMax is underwater with a snorkel."
Releasing an iPhone 4S on 3G/CDMA would give Sprint the iPhone quickly while allowing more time for Sprint to get ready to support an LTE-ready iPhone, analysts noted. Some analysts believe the iPhone 5 could be LTE-ready, although others say an LTE model won't come until the iPhone 6 or some future variant, leaving the iPhone 5 to have the iOS 5 enhancements that Apple announced Monday.
The rumors and reports get even more intriguing. This week, Talk Android said it learned from Sprint store employees that before both Sprint and T-Mobile get the iPhone 4S this fall, Verizon and AT&T will get the iPhone 5. In 2012, Sprint and T-Mobile would then get the next model first, followed by AT&T and Verizon.
That leapfrog approach doesn't take into account what would happen if the planned merger of AT&T and T-Mobile is approved, although Apple might be placing Sprint on a different cycle than AT&T/T-Mobile and Verizon.
Talk Android also reported that the Sprint iPhone's data charge would be higher than what users now pay, although the details are unclear. All Sprint smartphones today tack on a $10 monthly data charge, atop Sprint's $69.99-a-month unlimited voice, text and data plan, for a total of $79.99 per month. Reportedly, that total would jump to $89.99 per month with the iPhone 4S.
With so much speculation about an iPhone 4S, it seems that the smoke is indicating a real fire, Gold said. "I don't see why Apple wouldn't provide an iPhone to Sprint," he added. "They have provided iPhones for carriers all over the globe."
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.