The Belgian Council of Ministers has ruled that mobile phone makers can no longer block 4G for certain carriers.
Although the ruling applies to all phone manufacturers, the decision is mainly targeted at Apple, which has been consistently blocking iPhone users' access to the 4G networks of Belgian telcos Proximus and Base.
The reason for the block is that Apple has made 4G access available to iPhones on its preferred partner first — in Belgium's case, that's Mobistar. The problem, however, is that Mobistar doesn't have a 4G network yet, whereas competitors Proximus and Base both do.
Although Apple does sometimes grant 4G access to networks other than its preferred partner, it requires those companies to subject their 4G network to a certification process, which can involve significant costs for mobile operators.
As a result, a situation has arisen in Belgium in which Apple's preferred partner Mobistar has certification, but no 4G network, whereas Proximus and Base both have 4G networks, but not certification.
Lack of 4G support
Late last year, Coralie Miserque, corporate affairs manager at Base, said Apple had made it hard for the company to get 4G support.
"It was a true obstacle course; after months and months of (fruitless) attempts to approach Apple, Base finally received a typical Apple answer that the certification process was pending and would require some time. But how much time, the company refused to specify," she wrote in a blogpost.
"It seems that Apple continues to protect its preferred partner in Belgium and refuses to certify its two competitors or at least is delaying the process until Mobistar has deployed its own 4G network. And this is not an exception, in other countries, Apple often grants its preferred partners 4G access months before anyone else."
Threat of fines
The situation has not just sparked the anger of the Belgian telcos and consumers, but Belgian politicians as well.
As a result, economy minister Johan Vande Lanotte put forward a proposal that would require mobile phone manufacturers to allow their smartphones to be used on any suitable network, a proposal that was approved by the Belgian Council of Ministers.
The decision means that, should Apple choose to ignore the requirement, it can now be fined for non-compliance, although the amount of such fine is yet to be disclosed. However, Belgian newspaper De Morgen said the threat of penalties is unlikely to change Apple's strategy in the country.
"It seems very unlikely that Apple will actually comply with the requirement of the Belgian government. After all, the company has plenty of money and can easily ride this thing out until Mobistar has deployed its 4G network," it said.