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What Will a Verizon iPhone Mean to You?

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Perhaps a month ago we might have said that an iPhone with Verizon's new 4G LTE network technology on board would be impossible. But this past week at CES we got our hands on numerous phones, at all stages of development, that were working with Verizon's fast 4G network with no trouble. If Apple announces a product on Tuesday that won't ship until closer to the summer, it is entirely possible that LTE networking will be on board.

If it does have LTE, will the device be thick? The iPhone 4 grabbed at the "Thinnest Smartphone" title, and Apple has had three generations of 3G phones to improve battery life. The LTE phones we saw at CES were all quite thick, especially compared to similar non-LTE phones from the same manufacturers. Battery performance was also up in the air, as we haven't been able to review any of these devices.

To date, Apple has not been in a rush to adopt a new network technology. The original iPhone was not 3G, even though many competing smartphones at the time were. It launched as AT&T was still building up its 3G network. Verizon Wireless has launched LTE in an impressive number of markets, perhaps covering even more customers than AT&T could have covered with 3G when the original phone launched. But there is a benefit to waiting. A long wait for an LTE iPhone would give Apple the chance to improve designs and battery life to bring the faster networking device more inline with current 3G devices.

So, it's likely that Apple might create a CDMA phone just for Verizon Wireless. CDMA is the network technology used by Verizon Wireless and Sprint. It is a completely different technology from the GSM standard used by AT&T and T-Mobile, so phones on CDMA networks will not work on GSM networks unless additional GSM radios are added. In fact, it is even easier for network operators to lock phones to their own specific CDMA network than it is for GSM carriers. GSM phones use a SIM card to identify themselves on the network. These SIM cards are interchangeable, so if your phone is 'unlocked,' that means it will accept a SIM card from another carrier and work on that carrier's network. This is how resourceful iPhone users have been able to unlock their devices to use on T-Mobile (without high-speed 3G networking, since T-Mobile's 3G is on a radio frequency the iPhone does not support) or to use locally on GSM networks abroad. For the record, Apple frowns on this practice, at least for its AT&T iPhones.

CDMA, on the other hand, usually requires some assistance from the carrier to get a new phone working on its network. While both Sprint and Verizon Wireless have said that they are open to some interchangeability, in practice Verizon requires that phones activated on its network have passed through its own network testing. So, it is unlikely a Verizon iPhone could be 'unlocked' to work with Sprint, or any other CDMA network.

The high-speed version of CDMA is called EV-DO, and it comes in two flavors, the original, slower EV-DO Rev. 0 network, and the newer, faster EV-DO Rev. A network. GSM networks confuse the issue somewhat, using a faster 3G technology called WCDMA. This is not the same as the CDMA technology that Verizon uses, and the two are incompatible. In terms of network speed, the EV-DO Rev. A network that will probably come with a CDMA iPhone is comparable in speed to AT&T and T-Mobile's 3.6 Mbps HSDPA network, where HSDPA is a technology used on WCDMA networks. Unfortunately for Verizon, both AT&T and T-Mobile have upgraded their network technology to support newer, faster HSPA networks that can reach theoretical speeds in the 7.2 Mbps range. The current iPhone 4 uses network technology in this range.

In fact, T-Mobile has been shipping a limited number of devices (currently just the T-Mobile G2 and T-Mobile myTouch 4G) that work with networks that clock in at 14 Mbps or 21 Mbps. Both T-Mobile and AT&T have USB data modems that take advantage of these higher-speed, upgraded networks, with more handsets from both carriers on the way.

In the real world, that means that if Verizon Wireless ships an iPhone without LTE on board, it will already be slower than AT&T's iPhone 4. Users should expect actual speeds in the 1 Mbps range, give or take a few hundred Kbps. In some crowded areas the iPhone 4 does not fare much better, but under the best circumstances, I've seen network speeds in the 2-3 Mbps range on the current iPhone, or even a bit better.

There is also the question of global roaming. Verizon Wireless currently ships phones that work with its own CDMA network as well as 3G UMTS networks abroad. Presumably, the new Verizon iPhone could use similar technology. Or, Apple could be even more daring and try to create one single device that would sell on every network, globally. It would need a wide range of bands for GSM networks like AT&T and CDMA networks like Verizon. To date, Verizon Wireless does sell a couple phone models with AT&T's network bands, the Droid 2 Global and the Droid Pro. Verizon does not have any roaming agreement in place for these devices, though, so they will only work on similar networks abroad, they are not able to roam freely where AT&T has service. It is unlikely a new iPhone, even with support for all of these radio bands built in, would be able to freely roam the nation, using whichever service is best. AT&T iPhones will work with AT&T, and Verizon iPhones will work with Verizon, no matter the radios inside.

The current Apple iPhone can be unlocked to work with other GSM networks. This requires some hacking, and Apple has declared this process illegal, though none of the hackers have yet to be prosecuted. However, outside of the U.S., there are some countries that legally require a phone to be unlockable to work on other networks.

Verizon Wireless and Sprint both share similar radio bands and network technologies. Will a CDMA iPhone be unlockable so that a Verizon device will work with Sprint's service? Even if this is possible, it is unclear whether even Sprint would allow it. While using T-Mobile's network with an unlocked AT&T iPhone requires merely popping in a new SIM card, the process for joining one CDMA phone to another network is more complicated, and usually requires the direct intervention of the carrier. In other words, whether or not Apple creates an iPhone for Verizon that is capable of being used on Sprint, if Sprint does not want the phone on its network, the device will most likely be locked out.


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