iPhone 5 splits into two models, one for US GSM+LTE, another for CDMA+LTE and everybody else

During today's iPhone 5 press event, they made a point of paying special attention to the new radio chip at use in the new smartphone. Like iPhones before it, the iPhone 5 uses a single chip to manage all of the various radios and bands it has to address in order to be used on networks around the globe. Problem is, throwing LTE into the mix makes things a little more complicated. LTE actually adds seven - yes, seven - new bands into the mix, nearly doubling the number of bands needed to be supported between the 4G standard, HSPA, GSM, and CDMA.

Unlike GSM and HSPA networks, which with the exception of the US have all managed to settled on a common and interoperable set of frequencies across international borders, LTE networks around the globe are all on different bands, making building a device that will work on all a pain and a half. Case in point, in the US alone, AT&T's LTE is on bands 4 and 17, while Sprint is on 25 and Verizon takes up band 13. Internationally there's even more frequency flavor, with bands 3 and 7 getting a lot of traffic around the globe, band 4 getting picked up by Bell and Telus in Canada (to maintain compatibility with AT&T LTE devices), and a smattering of other bands.

So how does the iPhone 5 fit into this LTE banding mess? With two different models, one for US GSM+LTE (A1428), and another for CDMA+LTE and global GSM+LTE (A1429). Both support the full range of GSM and HSPA frequencies, but for LTE the GSM version runs on bands 4 and 17 (good for AT&T, Bell, and Rogers - and technically T-Mobile USA, if not for want of an actual LTE network and GSM compatibility), while the CDMA version supports LTE bands 1, 3, 5, 13, and 25. That's band 1 NTT DOCOMO in Japan, 3 for over thirty networks around the globe, 5 for South Korea's SK Telecom, 13 for Verizon in the USA, and 25 for Sprint in the USA. The global GSM+LTE version drops support for the US-specific LTE bands 13 and 25, though for all intents and purposes it's the same device as the CDMA+LTE version (hence the identical model numbers)

To break that down into something easier to understand… the GSM+LTE A1248 iPhone 5 is good for GSM networks in North America, namely AT&T, Bell, and Telus. The CDMA+LTE/global GSM+LTE A1249 iPhone is good for Sprint and Verizon in the US and a large majority of other LTE networks around the globe. If you live in the US and travel to Canada and want LTE while you're there, go with the AT&T version. If you're in the US and travel often to the rest of the world, go with Sprint or Verizon for international LTE coverage. If you happen to travel between Canada and the rest of the world and want LTE, sorry.

There's one more wrinkle: LTE band 7, which isn't supported by either version of the iPhone. That becomes an issue if your preferred carrier is somebody like O2 in the UK, Yota in Russia, or any of the other 20-odd LTE networks that only operate on band 7. In fact, whole countries like Austria, Brazil, Columbia, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland that already have operational LTE networks are completely cut out of getting LTE from the iPhone 5 thanks to their choice to rely entirely on Band 7. That could be fixed with the next iPhone, or when a network running on one of the iPhone 5's many supported bands is launched. Regardless, they all have 3G networks that the iPhone 5 will work on just fine, and get better battery life to boot.

Why did this happen? Because LTE is hard. The bands on which LTE operates vary from country to country due to political and economic reasons. For example, in the USA, LTE band 25 is in the 1900 MHz range, and is shared with HSPA+, while Verizon's 700 MHz Band 13 was won at auction from the United States government and was formerly dedicated to broadcasting UHF channels 52-69 on analog television. AT&T's band 17 fits into that same 700MHz auction block, but band 4 operates in the 1700MHz and 2100MHz frequency ranges - both common to UMTS AWS, i.e. the frequencies used by T-Mobile's HSPA+ network. The spread of LTE bands means less interference and more bandwidth in those frequencies (not that that's been a problem when networks do occupy the same frequency bands, as in all of Europe), but also mean that getting all of that into a single chip is an exercise in radio magic.

Thus, there are two iPhone 5 smartphones. There's the A1248 for AT&T and Canada, and the A1249 for Sprint, Verizon, and almost everybody else. In the end, unless you're a globetrotter who travels between the United States and Canada or the United States and Europe, you probably won't care or notice which iPhone 5 you get, it'll just be the one assigned to your network or the unlocked one you picked up to work on not-AT&T/Canada. Only US-based international travelers need worry about the LTE bands of their selected iPhone, and even then that's going to be determined by the carrier you choose for your service at home. Chances are the two iPhone 5 models are actually the same device and carry the same chip inside, but due to the capabilities of that chip and the phone's radios they have different firmware to deal with the multitude of LTE bands it must process.

We do have to admit, though, it's odd to be recommending a Sprint or Verizon device for people who want comprehensive international coverage instead of AT&T. It wasn't that long ago that things were the other way around.

Source: Apple (opens in new tab); Via: The Verge

Derek Kessler

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.

  • Fragmentation.....
    lol had to do it
  • Thanks Derek for clearing this up. I'm originally from Canada and currently in the US on Verizon. There's a chance I could move back so I needed to know whether it'd be possible to get a Verizon LTE phone to work. Not the answer I wanted unfortunately!
  • So, aside from LTE support, the AT&T iPhone 5 and the VZW one will both work the same for voice, texting, and 3G data in any country outside the U.S.?
  • In theory, yes. Remember that they're still locked devices, so you'll either need to get them unlocked or get an international data plan from your carrier ($$$).
  • when you say unlocked do you mean what apple was doing before where you buy them unlocked and then once you select a carrier you are locked to that carrier? Or have they made them truly unlocked now like global GSM phones?
  • Truly unlocked. You'll have to buy a carrier-specific one, be it Sprint/Verizon or AT&T.
  • Sorry to be redundant, but I want to make sure I understand this clearly before deciding. Even though the article above does not specifically state that the A1249 Verizon iPhone 5 is GSM compatible, if you are on Verizon, and purchase an international plan, it will work in all countries that have GSM technology (as AT & T does).
  • That sucks I was hoping one phone would work on all.
  • Will the CDMA version support CDMA calls concurrently with LTE data transfers? Will the GSM model do the same now that they have gone with a single radio chipset?
  • Why don't Apple release a LTE for europe? That's kinda fail...
  • They are. It's the A1249 CDMA+GSM+LTE.
  • So, if you want the more universal LTE, you go with CDMA? As for GSM, do both carry the same bands for GSM?
  • Correct.
  • Derek, are you saying that the A1429 is both CDMA and GSM (which is contrary to the iPhone 4S which has different models for each technology)? I want to order the iPhone 5 from the US and bring it over to the UK, but have it work on the numerous occasions I am in the US each year. If I could get the A1429 and put my o2 UK SIM in it whilst in the UK, but switch it to Verizon or Sprint when I'm in the US that would be perfect, but I'm skeptical to believe that this is how it works, given the 4S was two different models. Thanks! Macca
  • I think I've just answered my own question (although would love confirmation). Having looked closer at the specs I see that the CDMA A1429 does everything that the GSM A1429 does PLUS the CDMA stuff as well. Seems kinda daft for Apple to list the two phones seperately if they are the same thing, and if they're not, whose going to get the GSM A1429 when you can buy the CDMA A1429 and get more options???
  • Sorry to spam the comments section but I just found this at https://www.imore.com/e?link=https2F2Fc2F4... iPhone 5 > Cellular and Wireless:
    GSM model: GSM/EDGE
    CDMA model: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B
    Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n; 802.11n on
    2.4GHz and 5GHz)
    Bluetooth 4.0
    GPS and GLONASS It suggests that there is a difference between the GSM and CDMA versions...
  • A1428: GSM, AT&T LTE A1429: GSM, CDMA, Sprint+Verizon+global LTE iPhone 4S was one model with CDMA and GSM support. iPhone 4 was separate.
  • If the CDMA model drops support for the bands that Sprint and Verizon use for LTE, how is their phone too?
  • The CDMA model supports Sprint and Verizon's LTE bands, as well as Europe's. It doesn't support AT&T's LTE.
  • Derek! Thanks a lot for your great article!
    I want to buy an unlocked version of the iphone 5 from the US, whenever they launch it, hopefully will be at 12:01 AM on the 14th of sept like the locked versions!
    my questions is I travel abroad a lot and therefore will be purchasing an unlocked version of iphone 5 and would like to it to work in most countries. I would like to know which version should I buy?
    the CDMA version? - coz that supports most mobile networks across the world and even most LTE bands? It would have a sim card slot for gsm use right? I travel to India a lot for work and the mobile carriers there use GSM 900 AND GSM 900/1800 networks. which version would work best for me.
  • Derek, Saudi Arabia does support more then one band. they support 800 MHz, 1800 MHz and 2600 MHz. So, the iPhone 5 (A1429) will be able to work on one of the three carriers available there. I would recommend to all of the people who are in Saudi Arabia to consider getting their iPhone 5 from Europe, for them to get LTE support from STC, Mobily, or Zain Sa. Also, STC and maybe the other two telecoms will reales their Voice + Data LTE SIM cards in 2013. STC is offering the nano SIM cards in their store now.
  • My fiancé who lives in Russia wants an iPhone 5 for her 30th birthday, what one do I need to get for it to work, or how do I find one that will? Thanks in advance for anyone who can shine some light on this for me, I look forward to hearing your reply. Cheers, Blake.
  • So, If I want to be able to use an iPhone 5 in South Korea I should go to Verizon and pick an A1429 model, correct?
  • hi buddy if i buy an iphone 5 locked in UK (for vodafone or orange), will it work in India?
  • I was trying to keep it simple (well simpler), and there was already tons of information to cover. There’s lots of reason why a technology has a marketed speed and a “realistic” speed. In fact many of the LTE speeds have gotten slower now that they’re much more saturation out there. Short version is that the more devices are using the tower’s bandwidth, the slower everyone’s speed get.
    Creating a post on which system works best in which countries could be good, but not sure I have enough data to really give good suggestions outside of the US/Canada.
  • Oh Boy!! All this info. is SO amazing about the iPhone 5s!!! THANK YOU!
    I guess I need it even simpler! Sorry for the bother! Hope someone is willing to reply.
    I live in the US, currently with TM, have NO complaints with them; however, desperately need this phone for work. I travel MOSTLY to Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Is there a certain carrier I should go with? I'm willing to pay a bit more for GOOD coverage in US and Int'l. THANK YOU!!!