September 19, 2012, 3:17 PM — U.S. buyers of the iPhone 5 won't have international LTE roaming when the highly anticipated device hits the street on Friday, but information from Apple, the FCC and carriers offers glimmers of hope that foreign LTE networks will be in reach eventually.
The new iPhone, which is set to ship on Friday, comes in at least two different versions, each of which is equipped to use a long list of cellular frequencies. To sell the iPhone 5 in its home country, Apple got many certifications for various types of radios from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
One thing missing from those approvals is LTE Band 3, a set of frequencies around 1800MHz that is expected to be used by carriers in many countries, especially in Europe. That band could be critical for LTE use outside the U.S., because two other LTE bands popular in Europe -- at 800MHz and 2.6GHz -- aren't built into the iPhone 5 at all. Yet it turns out that Band 3 may be there anyway.
LTE promises to bring much higher data speeds to mobile users around the world over the next few years. There are 299 carriers either operating, building or planning LTE networks today with the most popular form of the technology, called frequency-division duplex, according to Ovum analyst Daryl Schoolar. But in the near future, few if any users will be able to enjoy LTE speeds outside their home countries, partly as a result of so many different spectrum bands being used. At least 10 different LTE bands are defined worldwide.
In keeping with Apple's practice of paring down its models, the iPhone 5 is on the leading edge of multiple frequency support. At least one of its models includes hardware for five LTE bands plus 11 2G and 3G bands. That may pay off eventually for foreign LTE roaming.
The technical specs on Apple's site for the CDMA version of Model A1429 -- intended for Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless, plus KDDI in Japan -- list support for LTE Bands 1, 3, 5, 13 and 25, plus several sets of frequencies for older GSM, UMTS and CDMA networks. But the only LTE bands that the FCC has certified for the product are the last three: Bands 5 and 25, which will be used for LTE on Sprint's network, and Band 13, where Verizon operates the technology.