iPhone 6

Apple lays groundwork for global LTE roaming with new iPhones

The company in some cases almost tripled the number LTE bands on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

iPhone 6 / iPhone 6 Plus
Credit: Apple

By increasing the number of LTE bands to an astonishing 20 on its iPhone 6 models, Apple has paved the way toward global data roaming for the wireless technology. Now mobile operators just have to get their act together and agree on deals to make it a reality.

At the end of July, there were 318 commercial LTE networks in 111 countries. Unfortunately, most of those networks are virtual islands because of the technical complexity of deploying all of them on smartphones and tablets. However, with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Apple has managed to get over that hump.

"I think this will matter a lot, actually. Because the new iPhones aren't just supporting the mainstream frequencies, but also up-and-coming bands such as 700MHz," said Alan Hadden, president of the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), which keeps track of LTE's expansion.

Apple offers two different LTE configurations on its new iPhones -- one with 16 bands and one with 20. That's a huge improvement from as few as seven bands on versions of the iPhone 5S and 5C that Apple put on sale in Europe as well as parts of South America and the Middle East.

Buyers of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus in those parts of the world will be the big winners. For example, the 20-band model that will go on sale in Europe will work in Japan and the U.S and vice versa, according to Apple's LTE website. Those models are also compatible with TD-LTE, which is used in China, India, Brazil and some parts of Africa, and by Sprint in the U.S.

TD-LTE or LTE TDD (Time-Division Duplex) uses one channel for both upload and download traffic, compared to LTE FDD (Frequency-Division Duplex), which uses separate channels for download and upload traffic. A majority of networks use the latter technology.

The iPhone 6 models that Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile will sell have 16 bands, which is five more than the number available on the their versions of the iPhone 5S and 5C. One of the bands Apple has added is 2600MHz, which is widely used in Brazil, Hong Kong and Europe. The iPhone 6 models from Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile lack support for TD-LTE, but still have enough bands to be used in most parts of the world.

Getting all the bands in place is only the first step; mobile operators also have to agree on roaming deals that tie their networks together. Operators such as AT&T, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, Swisscom, Telstra, TeliaSonera and Vodafone are leading the way. And some of them think Apple's upgrade can help increase the interest in international roaming.

For its part, Orange said that an increase in the number of LTE bands supported should encourage its subscribers to use their devices when they travel abroad because roaming will enable them to take advantage of LTE speeds in other countries.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com

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