Verizon Wireless Rural LTE partner Strata Networks appears set to be the first small wireless network operator with an LTE-capable iPhone. The company announced yesterday that it will begin carrying the iPhone 5 on March 15 and a company representative told Telecompetitor today that the device will be LTE-compatible.
Previously at least one other rural carrier – Verizon rural LTE partner Bluegrass Cellular – had the iPhone 5 but initially at least it only worked with 3G.
It’s not surprising that the first rural carrier to get an LTE-capable iPhone is a Verizon rural partner. Those carriers are building out spectrum in the 700 MHZ upper C-block leased from Verizon, which holds all of the spectrum in that band in the U.S. except in Alaska. Verizon Wireless already has an LTE-capable iPhone 5; accordingly it should have been a relatively simple task to make a similar product available for Strata Networks. As another Verizon rural partner explained to Telecompetitor several months ago, Verizon Wireless uses software on its handsets that rural partners cannot use – the small carriers need different software on their devices.
I would expect to see some other Verizon rural partners that have launched LTE networks to also begin carrying LTE-capable iPhones as well. Typically announcements of this sort come in a flurry from multiple carriers. That’s what we saw, for example, when several smaller carriers got the iPhone 4S just as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint began carrying the iPhone 5.
But don’t expect to see many rural carriers other than Verizon partners carrying LTE iPhones any time soon. Many smaller carriers are deploying or plan to deploy LTE in the 700 MHz A- or B-blocks and they have had difficulty persuading device manufacturers to build smartphones for them because their volumes are so small and, unlike the Verizon rural partners, they have not been able to ride a larger carrier’s coattails. Verizon holds a considerable amount of A-block spectrum but the company’s priority is to build out other spectrum bands first. And although B-block spectrum holders share that block with AT&T, many of them also hold A-block spectrum and want devices that work in both spectrum bands.
The FCC is exploring what would be required to increase the interoperability of LTE networks but has not yet taken any action on that issue.
UPDATE: Verizon rural partner Cellcom contacted Telecompetitor to advise us that they announced an iPhone capable of working on their LTE network back in January. The announcement was made via the company’s Facebook page, a Twitter feed and text messages to customers.