August 6, 2013

4G and the iPhone 5 Problem

4G is pretty much all that any of the UK mobile phone networks seem to be worrying about right now. Building the infrastructure, deciding on prices, securing a line-up of 4G ready handsets, running advertising campaigns and racing to be the biggest, fastest and best 4G network is a lot of work and it’s something that EE, Vodafone, O2 and Three have all been occupied by to varying degrees.

The amount of money each network has thrown around at the problem is pretty astronomical but there are some problems that money can’t solve and the iPhone 5 is one of them. Why is the iPhone 5 a problem you ask? Because it doesn’t work on every 4G frequency and as the networks aren’t all using the same frequencies some of them won’t have access to it – or not on 4G at any rate.

If it was almost any other phone that wouldn’t be much of a problem, after all there are dozens if not hundreds of different Android handsets on the market, a healthy number of Windows Phone 8 handsets and even a few BlackBerry phones, but there’s only really one iPhone. Or only one top-end, up to date model and that’s the one that most customers care about, though saying that none of the older models of the iPhone support 4G at all, so any network that can’t offer the iPhone 5 on 4G won’t be able to offer 4G for any model of Apple’s iconic handset.

O2 and Vodafone are the two networks which will be iPhone-less. EE already offer it and Three should be able to as well because they purchased some of EE’s 1800 MHz spectrum – the only UK spectrum frequency that works with the iPhone 5. Though by the time Three launch their 4G network the iPhone 5S will likely be out anyway so it probably won’t make all that much difference to them.

As O2 only have access to 800 MHz spectrum and Vodafone just 2.6 GHz and 800 MHz neither of them will be able to supply the iPhone 5 to eager would-be customers. That’s a huge problem as it’s possibly the most popular phone in the world and certainly one of the most popular. O2 will be first to feel the hurt when they launch their 4G network at the end of the month. Vodafone meanwhile are suffering in other ways as they’ve delayed their 4G network launch precisely because of the lack of a compatible iPhone model. Originally they were going to launch at around the same time as O2 but now it looks set to be a month or two later when, hopefully, the iPhone 5S will be available allowing Vodafone to have an iPhone available on their 4G network from day one. Presumably they’re also working behind the scenes to take as much advantage of the delay as possible so that perhaps they’ll be able to launch with more of a bang than O2 look set to.

Whether O2’s tactic of launching without an iPhone or Vodafone’s of delaying their launch so that they won’t be without one is the best approach remains to be seen but there’s no doubt that both networks have been negatively affected by this problem – a problem which is largely beyond their control and which EE was enormously fortunate to benefit from.

It’s questionable how much it will matter in the long run, but starting strong is undoubtedly important and the iPhone 5 problem is affecting both O2 and Vodafone’s ability to do so.

You almost have to feel sorry for them, facing this new problem after already not being able to launch a 4G network till long after EE, it’s undoubtedly going to lead to an uphill struggle for both networks in the coming months and it’s something that no amount of advertising or 4G coverage can solve and no matter how much money they’re prepared to throw at the problem it’s not going to go away, because at the end of the day many consumers are going to want the iPhone 5 and that’s something that O2 and Vodafone just can’t deliver.

It’s something that only time will fix, only once Apple see fit to unleash the iPhone 5S will O2 and Vodafone be able to breathe easy, until then a large section of the market will have no choice but to go elsewhere for their 4G fix.

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