Will your new Apple smartphone or tablet seamlessly connect to 4G/LTE networks? Not necessarily. BELTUG has put together a report that highlights the issues, the government response and the actions BELTUG intends to take on behalf of our members.
Most recently, on 24 January the Council of Ministers approved a change in the law to make sure that all Apple iPhones and all other 4G devices can be used on all mobile networks. The next step will be to send the proposed changes to the Federal Parliament. BELTUG is very pleased with these steps, and will encourage the members of Parliament to approve the changes. INTUG will also react, by contacting Commissioner Joaquín Almunia, responsible for competition, and Commissioner Neelie Kroes, responsible for the digital agenda.
While the office of the EC's competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia has confirmed it is "monitoring the situation" surrounding Apple's carrier contracts, Apple keeps selling lots of iPhones and iPads.
Undoubtedly a lot of the buyers of the popular Apple devices will erroneously assume their new Apple smartphone or tablet will seamlessly connect to the high speed 4G/LTE networks provided by their preferred mobile network operator in Belgium. iPad owners will be glad to learn they face no problem at all connecting to any of the currently available Belgian 4G networks. Unfortunately, this is not the case for iPhones that are only allowed to connect in 4G mode on the Mobistar network.
A growing number of members signal increasing numbers of iPhone-using employees are being confronted with this problem. Unless the connectivity option offered by their employer includes Mobistar-based 4G connectivity, they will not be able to use 4G communications on their iPhone.
BELTUG contacted both Belgacom/Proximus and Base to get more details on the their views regarding the Apple iPhone and iPad 4G connectivity options. Apple was also asked to comment on the situation but so far Apple has not reacted to our inquiries.
2. The Apple iPad and 4G networks
iPad users don’t need to worry: provided they have got a WiFi + cellular model, Apple officially states their tablet will indeed work with the Proximus and Mobistar 4G networks (see this link). Base is currently not listed by Apple as offering an iPad compatible 4G network. Although not listed by Apple, Base and user information found on the Internet confirms iPads do work on the Base 4G network in 4G mode.
3. The Apple iPhone and 4G networks
For iPhone users, the current situation is not good: 4G compatible iPhones will only work in 4G mode on the Mobistar 4G network which is still undergoing tests and for which the commercial roll-out is currently foreseen for early 2014. This is documented on this Apple web page. So currently, 4G compatible iPhones will not enable 4G mode when connected to the Proximus or Base networks. Allegedly, Apple is blocking 4G enabled iPhones from connecting to these 4G networks as long as Apple has not certified these networks.
3.1. Apple’s 4G Network Certification
And that brings us to the core of the matter: iPhones will only activate 4G mode on Apple certified 4G networks. One of the explanations often cited is that Apple wants to ensure the quality of the user experience and this quality is effectively determined by both handset and 4G network quality. Upon the initial roll-out of the iPhone in the USA, the American mobile networks did not always provide the minimum quality required by the iPhone and some customers wrongly blamed the Apple handsets for that. So a network certification might be Apple’s method to assure a high quality customer experience. Supporters of Apple’s 4G network certification such as Olaf Swantee, CEO of UK number one operator EE, do indeed stress 4G handsets and 4G networks need to be fine-tuned to one another to guarantee a high quality user experience (see this link). Nevertheless, it does seem rather odd iPads can connect to non-certified 4G networks while the iPhones are blocked from doing so. From a technical point of view this distinction doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense given iPhones and iPads use similar or even identical 4G/LTE components and software.
Other unconfirmed rumours say Apple might be using the network certification to protect the commercial interests of the Apple certified 4G network providers. By unlocking the iPhones on certified 4G networks only, Apple is effectively pushing iPhone users into subscribing with an Apple certified 4G provider. In Belgium the iPhone user wanting 4G connectivity doesn’t have any choice at all: Mobistar is currently the only 4G network certified by Apple for use by the iPhone.
If yet other rumours are true (see this link but also this one) both certified 4G network providers and smartphone users might be feeling the financial impact of Apple’s secret contract details and Apple’s actions might tempt other major handset manufacturers to try to copy certain aspects of the Apple commercial tactics in their contracts with the network operators.
4. Improving the Belgian iPhone 4G Situation
Unfortunately, the chances of additional Belgian 4G networks to become Apple certified in the short term are rather slim and the options are limited. Typical parties that might be able to do something about the current situation are the government and the network operators.
4.1 The Government
As documented in this blogpost by Coralie Miserque from Base, the problem has been communicated to the Federal Public Service Economy, SMEs, Self-Employed and Energy. The FPS Economy issued following statements concerning the Apple iPhone 4G network issue:
The FPS Economy also consulted with the BIPT/IBPT but the BIPT/IBPT has no authority over vendors that do not include or deactivate certain functionalities from their devices.
Thirdly, the FPS Economy communicated that the “Belgische Mededingingsautoriteit – Autorité belge de la Concurrence” also has authority on this matter and has already investigated the issue in the past. At that time, the authorities concluded they were unable to find any infringement of competition law on basis of the information available at the time of the investigation.
4.2 The Mobile Network Operators
The other party that eventually could make Apple move away from its current practices is the 4G network operators. However, given the very strong bargaining position of Apple and the fragmented position of the 4G network operators this is very unlikely to happen soon. The 4G network operators are clearly split up into two camps: those that have already obtained Apple’s 4G network certification and those that have not. Predictably, the Apple certified 4G network providers support the Apple certification scheme while the others would rather like to welcome iPhones on their 4G networks without having to deal with the Apple certification.
For Belgium the situation does not look good at all. Belgium is definitely not on Apple’s priority list and on a global scale the Belgian 4G operators are considered small and relatively unimportant.
A quote from the http://www.telecoms.com web site: “The network needs cheerleaders,” Weldon says. “And Apple is essentially saying that the network is important. That’s a good thing. While this could be construed as positive for The Network as an abstract element of the service, it does not follow that it is good news for all operators. Life for tier two and three operators, and those that lack the scale of large groups, is becoming increasingly difficult—and Apple’s selectivity is likely to hit them hardest, says Informa analyst Dimitris Mavrakis.”
“Apple would not do this to the tier one players, to AT&T, Verizon or China Mobile,” Mavrakis says. “But for smaller operators, or European players with a limited subscriber base, Apple has the audacity to do this and I’m not sure all operators will even make it to the testing phase.”
5. BELTUG Actions
It is clear from the preceding information that currently the Apple iPhone 4G situation in Belgium is in a deadlock so BELTUG will contact the following parties to see what can and needs to be done to get things moving in the proper direction:
BELTUG/INTUG will also raise the issue on the European level with European Commissioners Joaquín Almunia (Vice-President) and Neelie Kroes (Vice-President).
The report is also available in pdf: