When you preordered your new iPhone, or when you pick it up in the store later this month, chances are pretty good that you aren’t committing to two years with your carrier. But if you’re like most consumers, you’re probably still pretty locked-in to a single network even without signing a contract. That may be about to change, thanks to some shifts in the wireless industry and new Apple technology that, sooner or later, is expected to make it to a future iPhone.
As revealed by Apple’s page on the technical specifications of the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus, each model of the new iPhone supports a long list of different wireless spectra on which the phones can communicate. Cade Metz reports for Wired that the new iPhones are built to run on “practically any network in the world,” which means that “consumers soon will have the freedom to move between wireless carriers as they please.”
Traditionally, moving from one carrier to another has been a daunting task for the average consumer. Using smartphone subsidies and long-term contracts, carriers have locked users in to a single network, even when they moved from place to place or discovered that they were unhappy with their service.
But Steve Perlman, the entrepreneur behind Artemis Research and the wireless network it’s building in the San Francisco Bay Area, tells Metz that that’s changing. “The thing that people may or may not notice is that if you build a phone that supports every band in the world,” he says of Apple and the new iPhones it unveiled earlier this month, “you make it easy for for people to migrate from operator to operator.”
Metz reports that the obstacles that have traditionally stood in the way of that “new wireless order” are gradually falling away. In the midst of Apple’s high-profile media event, it announced the new iPhone Upgrade Program, which will enable it to finance users’ purchases of the latest iPhones, enabling you to pay for your phone in monthly installments without the help of a wireless carrier. The plan seems equally aimed at encouraging more frequent upgrades and giving Apple more control over the relationship with users, but it should also have the effect of making it easier for consumers to move between carriers. “If you’re not paying Verizon a monthly fee for your phone,” Metz writes, “you can switch to T-Mobile or Sprint or AT&T.”
Switching carriers usually requires a new SIM card, but that, too, is likely to change. Apple already offers a multi-carrier SIM card in new models of the iPad, and Apple’s website explains that the Apple SIM in the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 offers users “the convenience of choosing a cellular data plan from select carrier partners right on your iPad.” In a device with the Apple SIM installed, users have the option of selecting from a number of carriers — currently AT&T, EE, Sprint, T-Mobile, and GigSky — offering short-term and long-term data plans, and even pay-as-you-go options for fixed amounts of data.
Apple is expected to eventually offer the same sort of SIM card for the iPhone. Though Apple hasn’t yet said that it plans to make such a move, the company is incorporating the Apple SIM into a growing assortment of devices, including the new supersized iPad Pro. Most carriers have de-emphasized or entirely discontinued long-term contracts, and that makes it possible for consumers — at least those who purchase their devices outright — to switch carriers from month to month.
The idea is gaining traction in the wireless industry. Google’s experimental wireless service, called Google Fi, enables users to switch between T-Mobile and Sprint as a stronger signal becomes available. In collaboration with Apple and Samsung, mobile telecom telecom industry association GSMA is exploring the idea of a universal electronic SIM that would work on all carriers’ networks, and enable users to switch between networks instantly.
Metz reports that what we need now is the Apple SIM, or another way to easily switch between carriers. But building a solution isn’t easy; while the Apple SIM works for the iPad, the iPad doesn’t make calls. The iPhone, on the other hand, does. Perlman tells Wired that that makes the task more challenging, since the technology needs to be able to manage handoffs and roaming. If the technology needs to handle data only, as with the iPad, the implementation is simpler.
The other challenge, beyond ironing out the complexities of the technology, is to get carriers to agree to a setup where consumers can switch between networks at will. While some have been reluctant to allow such switching, Metz thinks that they’ll soon fall in line, or else risk losing out to competitors who do.