When EE launched the UK's first countrywide 4G network yesterday, chief executive Olaf Swantee made a remark seen by many as a hint that the operator is lined up to get an LTE-enabled iPhone 5.
"To ensure our customers can make the most of 4G we will be launching state-of-the-art devices from the world's leading manufacturers including Samsung, HTC, Nokia and Huawei," Swantee said, adding with a wry smile, "Oh, and one more thing, we will be announcing more devices very shortly."
That's a long way from confirmation — but it does raise the possibility that a 4G version of the iPhone 5, expected to be announced on Wednesday, is on its way to the former Everything Everywhere. The operator has, after all, beaten its rivals to the punch in super-fast mobile broadband in the UK.
But let's look at that for a second: how likely is it really that the iPhone 5, or whatever it is called, will work on the UK’s first widespread 4G network?
Here's one thing to consider: EE is 'refarming' its 1800MHz frequency, previously used to deliver 2G services, for its 4G network. The Nokia Lumia 920, the Samsung Galaxy SIII LTE and other handsets the operator is tying to its super-fast services will work on this band — but no iPhone to date has offered 4G in this band.
This is because different countries use different bands for delivering 4G LTE services, and, unsurprisingly, the iPhones and iPads on sale are built to work with frequencies used by US operators. For the iPhone 5 to work on EE's network, Apple would have to build in hardware for 1800MHz.
iPhone 5: Built for 1800MHz?
When Apple launched the new iPad in March, it was forced by the British ad watchdog to stop calling it a '4G' device, as it couldn't provide 4G speeds, given the lack of networks in the country. Once EE's super-fast service goes live, it still won't work with the third-generation iPad because the Apple tablet works on different bands — 700MHz and 2.1GHz.
However, Apple is unlikely to make this mistake the second time around.
While the company was building that iPad, the UK's 4G future was uncertain. We knew which bands would eventually be used, but not when any of them would be freed up for 4G. True, 3.5GHz 4G TD-LTE was then available, but its reach is too limited to be truly useful.
The situation this time around is very different: we now have one operator with services poised to go live on 1800MHz, and trials already taking place in major British cities.
In addition, the UK has 3.5GHz set aside for 4G use. Add to this the upcoming spectrum auction that will free up other operators to offer 4G services in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands.
If Apple doesn't include UK 4G compatibility in the iPhone 5, it will have to wait until the next model of the handset — which is at least a year away — before it can offer a 4G iPhone for British buyers. By that point, other operators will be up and running with their own super-fast networks using different bands, and loads more 4G handsets will be on the market.
Given that, it would be madness for Apple to miss this chance of launching the iPhone 5 with a feature that businesses and consumers will really want. The company seems to be considering it, anyway: according to a report in The Guardian, Huawei, Nokia Siemens Networks and Ericsson have been testing iPhones that work on 1800MHz.
Obviously the US is the strongest market for Apple, generally speaking. But even as it continues to dominate its home territory, it is working on expanding that presence across Europe and the Far East — an altogether tougher proposition.
It would be madness for Apple to miss this chance of launching the iPhone 5 with a feature that businesses and consumers will really want
Any mobile product that Apple wants to succeed in those regions needs to appeal on the basis of its features. Not every country has been as slow as the UK in getting 4G up and running, so buyers in other non-US territories, such as the Middle East, are already used to faster mobile speeds. If there are a lot of other high-end handsets around capable of working on their local 4G networks, then Apple will struggle to tempt them to buy a 3G-only phone.
Think about it: Poland, Lithuania, Germany, the UK and a number of other European countries already use the 1800MHz band for 4G. So do Australia, Hong Kong and South Korea, and other nations either already have 4G trials for that spectrum under way or have filed papers for permission to get them under way soon.
Given the combined size of the market, Apple would essentially be capping its potential sales by excluding this band; it would be positively shocking if it wasn't included as part of the iPhone's core specs.
I mean, if the recently launched Nokia Lumia 920 Windows 8 phone a plethora of different mobile bands, I don't see why the latest and greatest of Apple's range wouldn't.
If for some reason Apple doesn't include this band, it will in all likelihood support either 800MHz or 2.6GHz. That means its devices will work with 4G services in the UK later, if not sooner — but it would be a massive oversight.
For the next six months at least, the 1800MHz band will be the only game in town for British buyers who want 4G services. There already a few 4G-enabled handsets out there that will work with that spectrum: one of them is the HTC One XL, which EE confirmed will be a part of its launch line-up when it switches on the services.
Also on the list of handsets is the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Samsung Galaxy SIII LTE, but the one people really want confirmed is the iPhone 5. Given the circumstances, it's likely they'll get what they want.