Apple to test WiBro-enabled devices in Korea?

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Wireless provider Korean Telecom reportedly signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Apple to combine “WiBro, a third generation-based communications technology, with Apple’s hit products such as the MacBook laptops and iPod media players,” according to Unwired View.

WiBro is similar to the WiMax and LTE technologies currently being deployed here in the US except that WiBro has been available to consumers in Korea since mid-2006 and many mobile devices contain WiBro-capable chipsets already. So it’s not huge news that Apple Korea would want to add WiBro connections to the products it sells there.

What is interesting, though, is Unwired View’s theory that Apple might be using the WiBro standard as a test market for later deploying its devices on, say, WiMax or LTE networks later.

“[T]ake a closer look at what kind of technology WiBro actually is. It’s an early version 802.16e standard, which today stands for a thing called Mobile WiMax. Yes, the very thing that Sprint and hundreds of companies around the world are busy deploying right now. Many of them are not wireless carriers and have  big plans to compete with them. Including the voice services via VoIP.

But while a lot of Mobile WiMax deployments are coming around the world, the things will take time to ramp up. WiMax carriers need to build out their networks and services, get the devices for them, educate markets and make users comfortable with new offerings. Sure, in a few years we might have millions of WiMAx subscribers. But not now and not next year.

Meanwhile we already have one, and only one, market in the world with developed Mobile Wimax infrastructure, services, and hundreds of thousands and soon millions of users. Korea. And the biggest WiBro carrier there is KT.

So what better place to test and try new products for a new emerging standard? E.g. just put a Wimax chipset into an iPod touch, add a microphone and speaker, plus VoiP client software – and you’ve got all the iPhone functionality for Mobile Wimax. I’m not even talking  about MacBooks, where Intel already has hybrid Mobile Wimax/Wi-Fi chipsets on sale.”

Now it’d be foolish for Apple to not eventually offer WiMax/LTE devices here in the US in 3-5 years once widespread adoption has taken place. The VoIP angle, though, is of particular interest. If these wide-area networks become ubiquitous enough, what would Apple need AT&T for? It may still offer some sort of iPhone for people in areas without WiMAX or LTE coverage, but it may be that we eventually witness the iPhone and iPod Touch slowly merge together into one device – either literally or figuratively.

It seems like Apple would rather go it alone anyway. Sure, it currently needs AT&T as a wireless partner in order for the iPhone to be successful but if we had inexpensive, near-ubiquitous broadband connections (what WiMAX and LTE promise) and the iPod Touch could do VoIP, how many iPhones do you think would be sold at $70 per month?

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