Handset compatibility could scupper early 4G launch

Everything Everywhere scored a breakthrough when it was given approval to launch 4G services later this year, but a lack of compatible handsets could stop the company making the most of its headstart.

Handset compatibility could scupper early 4G launch

Phones need to be compatible with 1,800MHz – the spectrum Everything Everywhere was allowed to repurpose for LTE 4G – but because most carriers globally have opted to use other frequencies, manufacturers have so far been reluctant to include support.

“You can build a network but without devices people won’t come,” said Thomas Wehmeier, principal analyst for telco strategy at Informa Telecoms and Media. “For a successful launch you need to have smartphones – it’s critical. Everything Everywhere will launch with some devices, but it would be much happier if it could have the real flagship devices.”

For a successful launch you need to have smartphones – it’s critical

Although there are a few handsets, such as the Samsung Galaxy S II, that include chips for the 1,800MHz range it is far from widespread. Samsung, tellingly, did not including it in the Galaxy S III, its current flagship phone.

“There are various frequencies being used around the world and a phone that works on one won’t work on the other,” Wehmeier said.

“Device manufacturers are focusing on the bands where they see the most scale and to date that means that the primary focus on the bands that the US operators are using, 700MHz and a variant of 2100MHz. Then there are bits and pieces in the 800MHz and 2600MHz bands, so it’s all a bit of a mess,” he added. “It’s critical that Everything Everywhere gets out there and gets commitments from manufacturers to support the 1,800MHz band.”

The issue is reminiscent of the advertising furore following the launch of the new iPad debacle. Apple was fined for selling a “4G” version of its tablet in Australia, even though the hardware was not compatible with local networks.

The situation may see dongles become the main access method for the early 4G service from Everything Everywhere.

Apple the joker

Without a flagship handset, Everything Everywhere could struggle to attract subscribers, but it could yet hold an ace if Apple’s next iPhone can handle 1,800MHz LTE.

Previous iPhones have supported 1,800MHz frequencies, but only for GSM – not for LTE, which promises significantly faster data speeds.

“The big question is what happens in a few weeks’ time when the next iPhone is launched. It’s almost certain that it will launch with LTE – but there’s a huge question mark as to whether it will support 1,800MHz,” Wehmeier said. “If it does, it will be a real coup for Everything Everywhere because the combination of an early launch plus effective LTE exclusivity on an LTE iPhone would be a real competitive advantage – a really strong position.”

However, inclusion of chips that support 1,800MHz service is far from certain. Although Qualcomm does make a chip that can support up to seven frequencies, it’s not likely to appear in handsets until later this year.

Nobody has so far included more than four-band support in handsets because of the costs, both financial and in terms of battery life. Without widespread carrier support, it will be hard to convince manufacturers the costs are worthwhile.

“Everything Everywhere alone isn’t big enough to convince Apple to include 1,800MHz, but the Korean operators want that frequency, Telstra down in Australia is desperate to have it,” Wehmeier said.

“Those factors could be enough to convince Apple to do it, but the problem will be that Apple had to make that decision quite a long time ago and it’s too late in the day to make changes. We just don’t know – it will make that launch more interesting.”

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