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iPhone 5: How Apple’s LTE Band Choices Are Affecting The Carrier Landscape In Europe

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The iPhone 5‘s partial support for LTE frequencies in Europe means that when the iPhone 5 goes on sale tomorrow, the only Europeans who will be able to use it for 4G speeds are customers of T-Mobile, Germany, browsing the mobile web in the 60 cities where the carrier has currently deployed 1,800MHz LTE.

The Germany carrier tells TechCrunch it plans to expand its 1,800MHz LTE coverage to 100 cities by the end of the year — and will look to push coverage further next year, although it is also using 800MHz spectrum to run LTE services to rural locations as this spectrum is more efficient at covering larger areas.

In the U.K. iPhone 5 owners will be able to surf at 4G speeds on the iPhone 5 in the very near future. Possibly not right away, but Brits have only to wait for the Orange, T-Mobile joint venture EE (formerly known as Everything Everywhere) to flick the switch and launch its 1,800MHz 4G network. This should be up and running in a matter of weeks (or less), assuming rival carriers don’t scramble their lawyers for a last ditch attempt to block EE’s 4G.

EE is using refarmed 2G spectrum to run LTE — having gained approval from the U.K. telecoms regulator, Ofcom — and will have 16 cities covered by the end of the year. It says it’s aiming to expand LTE cover to 98 per cent of the population by the end of 2014.

Currently, Germany and the U.K. are the only European countries Apple lists on the iPhone 5’s LTE support page — which has led to talk of Europe being left in the 4G slow lane. But a report in the French newspaper Les Echoes, spotted by Rude Baguette, points out Bouygues, a French mobile network, also holds 1,800MHz spectrum which could be refarmed to support LTE.

Bouygues confirmed to TechCrunch it is intending to use its 1,800MHz spectrum holdings to run 4G services — which would make it the third network with support for the iPhone 5’s 4G. However, it’s currently awaiting approval to switch its 2G license to 4G from the French telecoms regulator ARCEP.

A public consultation on this switch is underway and an ARCEP spokesman told TechCrunch that even if Bouygues’ application to refarm is approved it’s unlikely the carrier could get a 4G network up and running this year. The regulator has a maximum of eight months from Bouygues’ original application — filed back in July — to make a decision on the refarming, although the spokesman added: “We won’t take the maximum. We’re trying to do it as fast as possible.”

The Orange mobile network in France also has spectrum holdings in the 1,800MHz band but the network confirmed it won’t be seeking to use this band for 4G. “Orange is not refarming the 1800Mhz frequency that we have for LTE/4G in France, and we have not made a request to ARCEP to do so,” a spokesperson said.

iPhone 5 speeding the arrival of more UK LTE networks

In the U.K. Apple’s iPhone 5 may be inadvertently helping to speed up the arrival of additional 4G networks. One operator, O2, confirmed it is “working with all the parties involved to try and shorten the gap between EE launching 4G and the rest of the industry being able to” — although it would not specify exactly how it’s trying to shorten the gap.

Asked whether Ofcom is being pressured to speed up the clearance of the spectrum frequencies it will be auctioning next year — which O2 and Vodafone plan to use to build their LTE networks in the U.K. — an Ofcom spokesman provided the following statement: “It has always been our objective to make 4G spectrum available as soon as possible so that consumers can start to enjoy its benefits. On that basis, we are continually looking for ways to bring forward the availability of the spectrum. For example, earlier this year we announced plans to bring forward the timetable for clearing the airwaves of existing users. As part of our ongoing review of the programme, we are always looking at ways to speed up this timetable even further.”

The irony of the iPhone 5 potentially speeding up the arrival of more 4G networks in the U.K. is that these additional LTE networks — which will run in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bands — aren’t bands Apple has chosen to support in the model of the iPhone 5 it’s bringing to Europe.

Update: TechCrunch understands that all U.K. mobile operators have signed a ‘stand still agreement’ covering the month of September. This agreement means EE cannot launch its 4G network this month but also means other U.K. carriers will not litigate to block the launch during this period. The carriers are spending September in talks with each other, the U.K. government and Ofcom to try and broker an agreement to ensure multiple 4G networks are able to launch more speedily than they might otherwise.

Two key areas of negotiation are speeding up the auction process for the 800MHz and 2.6GHz spectrum bands, and expediting the clearance of TV frequencies to free up the bands for 4G sooner than the current schedule of September 2013. A source close to the matter told TechCrunch “anything earlier than September is a victory”.