T-Mobile says its network will be iPhone-compatible in 2012

by Phil Hornshaw

T-Mobile isn’t selling Apple’s iPhone, but not because it doesn’t want to. It’s because the U.S. cellular carrier’s network isn’t really compatible with Apple’s iconic device.

But that will change this year, T-Mobile says.

According to a story from CNET, T-Mobile has announced that its network will be compatible with the iPhone by year’s end, even if the company hasn’t brokered a deal with Apple to sell the phone yet. T-Mobile is currently the No. 4 carrier in the U.S. and the only one of the biggest four carriers not to feature the iPhone on its network, at least officially. Unofficially, T-Mobile says there are more than 1 million unlocked iPhones running on its network, even though the owners of those unlocked phones are stuck using EDGE technology instead of 3G.

T-Mobile says its network should be iPhone-ready this year, and it’s also looking at 4G LTE deployment starting this year as well. To help, T-Mobile has looked to Ericsson and Nokia-Siemens, and has also invested $4 billion in the deployment of the next-generation network technology. Both Ericsson and Nokia-Siemens have experience helping carriers with their 4G networks – they helped on Verizon’s networks, which is currently the most expansive in the country, for one.

T-Mobile also procured more spectrum from its failed AT&T merger, which should allow it to cover 75 percent of its top 25 markets with LTE, CNET reported. To fill in the gaps, T-Mobile is going with HSPA+ technology, which is faster than 3G but not quite as powerful as LTE. All that taken together should pretty much make it compatible with the iPhone going forward.

The big plus of T-Mobile’s improvements for iPhone users is that newer generation iPhones should be compatible with the network, including the not-yet-announced-but-expected-this-fall iPhone 5. That iPhone is expected to also carry 4G LTE technology, just like the third-generation iPad, and T-Mobile’s network should be able to support unlocked versions of the phone should users want to bring those devices from other networks, as they have with the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S.

The door isn’t shut on T-Mobile picking up the iPhone officially, either. Probably the biggest bar to users getting hold of the device this year, other than the network improvements T-Mobile has to make, is cost. Apple is able to bargain for some very high subsidies to be paid by cellular carriers on each iPhone sold. Sprint made a significant investment to bring the iPhone to its network last year with the iPhone 4S, and T-Mobile would have to do the same thing. With work being done on its network and capital invested there, it wouldn’t be crazy for the carrier to defer the cost and wait on trying to get the iPhone for another year.

Then again, all the other carriers have seen a significant boost in new members thanks to the iPhone, and T-Mobile could use the shot in the arm, even if it did have to pay a big up-front cost. But all that is dependent on the carrier building a compatible network that’s ready for Apple’s device, and that’s going to take some time.

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