iPhone 5, meet Europe: Where 4G really means 3G, LTE is scarce

LTE is common in Europe, but the networks operate on different bands of spectrum. It just means that you're likely not getting LTE on your new iPhone 5 any time soon. Here's why.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

Despite the many winners and losers that sprung out of the iPhone 5 announcement on Wednesday, the cruellest joke is on you if you're living in Europe. 

Sorry to break it to you, Europeans, but many of you won't be getting 4G LTE on the iPhone 5 any time soon.

In fact, only two networks in Europe currently support the iPhone 5 on LTE: Deutsche Telekom in Germany, and EE in the U.K. (previously Everything Everywhere) which this week announced its new 4G LTE network. But it hasn't even launched yet, though pegged for a November release date.

So, for now, only 15 million people in Germany, out of a total 500 million people in the EU, can access the LTE network on their iPhone 5 handsets once they arrive in the coming fortnight.

That's 3 percent if you were wondering. What's the deal? 


This is where it gets confusing. 

In the U.S., you have (in simple terms) 2G, 3G and 4G. We have that in Europe too, but the U.S. has boosted 4G to make it something that it really isn't.

Despite the various language differences across the European states, there are some things we generally agree on. Italians make the best coffee, the French make the best wine, and the English will knock you for six if you spill their mug of tea. We also mostly agree on the definitions of our mobile services.

Remember how Apple got in trouble with the U.K. and Australian advertising authorities and was forced to take out the references to "4G" for its latest iPad 3? Why, because as far as the Brits, the Ozzies and the rest of Europe is concerned, 4G is LTE, and that's that.

Because it's far from exact, so here's a rough translation. 

What the U.S. says What Europeans say
2G (or "GPRS, EDGE") 2G 
HSPA+ (or "4G") 3G (at a push: "3.5G")
DC-HSDPA (or "4G") 3G (maybe "4G")
4G (or "LTE") 4G LTE

You see, we're quite simple. For us Europeans, 4G means LTE, and everything else means 3G. Whereas on the other side of the pond, marketing got their wicked way, and even managed to enabled "4G" on non-LTE iPhones while their owners were sleeping. 

The reason is that '3G' and '4G' are not protected terms, which means for all intents and purposes, the toaster in my kitchen could be considered a "4G toaster," despite the only connection it has to the outside world is through the wall socket.


Europe has had relatively healthy adoption of LTE services, but it could be better. Reuters notes that European operators are expected to spend more than $15.2 billion (€11.6bn) in the next three years as LTE picks up, according to Rethink Technology Research. 

Just as with the real-life European language barrier, the LTE networks can't talk to the iPhone 5 because the latest Apple smartphone is on an entirely different band of spectrum to the others.

Most European networks offer their LTE services on the 800Mhz or the 2.6GHz bands, including France, Italy and Spain. But the iPhone 5 runs on the 1.8GHz band. Let's not be bullish about this: the only reason why Deutsche Telekom and EE will offer the iPhone 5 on LTE is because they were lucky enough to be on the 1.8GHz spectrum in the first place.

This, naturally, ruled out using the iPad 3 on European networks because Apple didn't provide a tablet that worked within the spectrum range. The iPad 3 works only on the 700MHz band, which is fine for Verizon and AT&T in U.S. where the two networks' LTE service broadcast on that band. 

(It's worth noting: Apple did sell two versions of the iPad 3 because even though the two networks operated within the same range, the tablets wouldn't work across networks and required different hardware.) 

It just so happened that Deutsche Telekom and EE were already ready to go by the time the iPhone 5 launched, and have a large existing (or in EE's case, a potential market). Apple would ultimately gain from it, so it played ball.

It goes without saying, of course, the iPhone 5 -- just as with any other LTE-enabled phone -- will work just fine on the existing but slower European networks. Speeds will still be incredibly fast on HSPA+ and DC-HSDPA, but users won't be getting the full force of the LTE wind. 

Apple senior vice-president Phil Schiller, during his pitch to the media at the Apple event on Wednesday, was keen to stress that, while LTE is around twice-as-fast as its closest rival DC-HSDPA, which Europeans still consider 3G, the latter is available on 20 networks around Europe. That's a lot more networks than the two that support the iPhone 5 on LTE, but it means users will still benefit from generally faster speeds.

But again, DC-HSDPA still isn't available on every network in every country. It's certainly more popular in Europe than slower HSPA+, but it's not absolutely everywhere unlike even slower HSPA which many are still on. 


But it's not Apple's fault, really. The Cupertino, CA.-based technology giant is appealing to the greatest markets it can, and will build three different versions of the iPhone 5: one designed for U.S. networks for AT&T, another designed for Verizon and Sprint, and one for "other," which translate to "the rest of the world."

There's a lot riding on it. Apple didn't just plug 1.8GHz out of thin air; it found the average LTE spectrum range, worked with carriers, and appealed to the greater masses, just as it did with the iPad 3.

If anything, the iPhone maker has gone beyond the call of duty in accommodating as many LTE users in Europe as possible. It's Europe's fragmented LTE market that holds to blame.

If only there was some kind of executive body or even a commission for all European member states that could somehow intervene and dictate exactly how the industry should collaborate on industry-wide standards?

Oh, right. Yeah, we have one, but it's about as useful as a snooze button on a smoke detector. 

Even then, just as with the iPad 3, every country's spectrum is different. While some of the larger U.S. networks allocated 700MHz for LTE, the U.K. used that band for free-to-air "Freeview" digital television. You can't just reallocate spectrum overnight; a concerted effort to harmonize the spectrum across the board could take years if not decades.

Exactly how this will affect sales of the iPhone 5 in Europe remains to be seen. Apple doesn't break down regional statistics of its quarterly sales, though research firm Canalys believes the figure to be about one-fifth of Apple's global sales

All in all, it gives rival smartphone makers' space to breathe. If the LTE industry in Europe isn't going to play ball, it leaves Apple to make the best out of a bad situation. But as it doesn't really need to clamber for market share, its Samsung and Android competition notwithstanding, it gives rivals the opportunity to specifically target LTE adopters with region-specific hardware and push its way past Apple in the long-term.

Image source: Apple.

Editorial standards