When Apple launched the iPhone in the USA in 2007, the handset was tied to one carrier, AT&T. This network exclusivity has remained throughout the subsequent iterations of the iPhone, the 3G, 3GS and now the iPhone 4.
While Apple has maintained a cool demeanor when questioned about the ability of AT&T to host the iPhone, the company has not deviated from using AT&T as the sole carrier of its mobile network products, the iPhone and now, the iPad.
Rumors have abounded for months and years about when the iPhone could come to the Verizon network. But, it is not just the iPhone that would use this network. The iPad 3G must be included in this equation as well, for this device is selling much faster than Apple had anticipated and, over the coming months, will surely place a significant load on the 3G network that it utilizes.
So, taking the iPhone and iPad together, what advantages would the consumer see if Apple released the AT&T stranglehold, and allowed their wireless devices on other cell carriers?
The first obvious benefit would be that of competition. With AT&T holding the strings, consumers in the US are limited to one carrier, and whatever that carrier decides to offer is what Apple customers have to live with. If Verizon did indeed offer the iPhone/iPad on its network, the retail competition between the two providers would inevitably create better deals for consumers, driving prices down and choices up. The problem that existing customers would face with this arrangement is that AT&T has made it extraordinarily difficult, and expensive, to leave its network in the middle of a contract. Early termination charges run riot in AT&T world, and any current iPhone customer wishing to join Verizon would be in for a world of pain on their wallet (this doesn’t affect iPad 3G customers as contracts with AT&T run on a monthly basis).
And, although Verizon is still offering true unlimited data packages while AT&T is not, this could very likely change with the adoption of the iPhone as the number of unlimited data providers apparently shrinks with increasing heavy usage of their networks. So Verizon would have to use other methods to attract customers.
But let us assume that Verizon did offer a CDMA iPhone, and that the majority of new customers signed up with Verizon, perhaps out of curiosity more than anything else, with a small proportion of AT&T customers breaking contract and moving too. The second issue here would be that of data burden on the two companies. Traditionally, AT&T, has shouldered the iPhone data load, and not without several bumps in the road. Multiple carriers would alleviate this burden, with Verizon taking on some of the weight, thereby allowing AT&T customers a better experience. Reduced load = better service.
But here is the rub. Verizon will shortly be launching a 4G LTE network to replace its 3G network (estimated for Q4 2010). Therefore, the rumored CDMA iPhone would have a shorter life than anticipated, as users would be eager to sign up for a new high speed 4G network, and may be hesitant to commit to an older technology. AT&T will also be launching a 4G LTE network, but in later 2011.
So, could Apple be working on a hybrid GSM / LTE / CDMA iPhone that would bridge the gap over the coming months and allow networks to remain competitive with each other? Apple has consistently tried to deliver products that generate the best user experience, the iPhone 4 antenna issue notwithstanding. While Apple has kept a certain amount of restraint over their devices to help AT&T maintain a reasonable standard of service delivery (examples include tethering and Facetime), the ability of carriers to shoulder the data burden of their success should not be a focal point in the future.
Apple has always been about the style and the user experience. If they deliver, they expect their partners to deliver as well. The time for limiting consumers to one network has passed. The proportion of users who jailbreak their iPhones quite simply proves this. Customers should be able to make their choices, and use their devices in a truly unlimited and unhampered manner, without being constrained from every conceivable angle by a lack of competition and long term evolution.