Apple couldn't engineer itself out of the global LTE mess, but maybe Intel can. The new iPhone 5 features 4G LTE, which is going to dramatically improve Internet speeds for AT&T and Verizon iPhone owners. (Sprint subscribers are left waiting for LTE to arrive where they live.)
But globally, the iPhone LTE picture is a disaster. There are two different iPhone models. The AT&T iPhone will work on LTE on T-Mobile USA and in Canada, but not in the rest of the world. The Verizon/Sprint iPhone will work in some European and Asian countries. No iPhone will work on the existing LTE networks in Austria, Brazil, Columbia, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland, as iMore points out. The phones will still roam where they can't get LTE; they'll be on 3G, which isn't fatal, but it's a night-and-day difference in terms of speeds.
The incompatibility is because there are way too many frequency bands being used for mobile phone networks right now. Apple's a popularizer and refiner of technologies; they're not introducing any radical new RF breakthroughs here, so they're stuck in the same LTE band whirlwind that everyone else is.
Between Apple's two models, it's already supporting seven different LTE bands, known as band 1, 3, 4, 5, 13, 17 and 25. But European operators have three more bands they use: 7, 20 and 38. They may also use band 8 in the future. Some Asian operators appear to be on Band 40.
Here at home, Sprint also plans to use band 26, and some smaller US carriers have band 12.
It's a mess. It means phone makers have to put together lots of different models for different countries, and those units will have trouble roaming well in other countries if they travel. It also means small carriers on obscure LTE bands, like 12, have trouble getting phones that work well with their networks because there are no huge carriers placing large orders for them.
Can Intel Fix Apple's Problems?
Fortunately, across the street from the iPhone event, I saw a potential solution.
Intel's Developer Forum was going on just across the street from Apple this week. Up on the second floor, the company was showing off the four relatively lackluster Intel phones so far, as well as a modem technology that could really change things.
Intel's XMM6260 modem, which has been in the market for a while, uses a single power amplifier for multiple bands, and it can be extended in software to support as many bands as necessary. It doesn't support LTE or CDMA, which is part of why we haven't seen it in many U.S. products.
But the point here, an Intel engineer told me, is that the company will be able to put an unlimited number of bands on a single LTE modem, possibly as soon as late next year.
Intel's modems will be able to mate with processors from Samsung, Nvidia, TI, and others. Apple used its modems up until 2010, when it switched over to Qualcomm in part to get Verizon and Sprint compatibility.
Modems are only half of the solution, though. Dermot O'Shea, co-founder of antenna firm Taoglas, said antenna design gets difficult when you're covering such a wide range of frequencies. Active antennas for smartphones, which have just started to hit the market this year, can adapt to different bands without being huge, although they add to the cost and complexity of smartphones. We're likely to see more of them next year.
Between active antennas and multi-frequency power amplifiers, it looks like phone makers are starting to get their hands around the riot of LTE frequencies; they're just not there yet. Maybe we'll see them in the iPhone 7.