The Verizon iPhone: In Search of Common Sense

January 4th, 2011

Almost from the first day the iPhone debuted on AT&T’s network in the U.S., some of the critics were busy complaining loudly that Apple should have selected Verizon Wireless instead. It was all so simple. Just pick and choose the carrier you want, and that’s all it took.

Unfortunately, the real world didn’t work that way. There are such things as contracts, and Apple’s fairly stringent requirements for a wireless partner. For one thing, when you buy an iPhone, you are Apple’s customer as much as you’re a customer of the carrier. Indeed, when I phone AT&T about an issue, I am asked to press one for Apple and iPhone issues, and two for AT&T, if you have a question or problem with their service. That’s control.

Although never officially confirmed, Apple allegedly went to Verizon Wireless first, but the carrier chafed about Apple’s demands, which ended up being their loss as history demonstrates. AT&T agreed to Apple’s terms, along with an extended period of exclusivity.

How long? Well, there was a published report in USA Today that said five years, although it wasn’t certain if the starting date was the first day the iPhone went on sale, or a year or two earlier, when the product was still under development. Regardless, it’s not certain how that agreement may have changed going forward.

So when the critics demanded a Verizon iPhone, it’s not as if Apple could suddenly abrogate their contract with AT&T and make a new deal. I suppose it could be done in theory, but lawsuits aren’t theories when agreements are broken, and you can bet there would have been a huge one from AT&T.

Now I understand why people are craving another provider. AT&T has had problems dealing with the high data demands of iPhone users. The company, cobbled together from several carriers over the years, has had growing pains improving their network to not just boost performance, but to reduce dropped calls and the lack of service in certain cities, and even specific neighborhoods in those cities. Lest we forget, AT&T has, over the years, gotten a bad rap for network quality. You no longer even hear those proclamations of “fewer dropped calls” on their TV ads.

Verizon Wireless became number one as the result of the merger with Alltel, but that company had a compatible CDMA network, and the integration doesn’t seem to have been so difficult. More to the point, all those Android OS phones seem to work just fine when it comes to network quality. Verizon continues to be rated number one, although, in some cities, it appears that Sprint and T-Mobile are extremely competitive. But never AT&T.

Regardless of the specifics of AT&T’s exclusive deal with Apple, more and more respectable media outlets are predicting that the long-awaited Verizon iPhone will debut early this year. Some of those reporters are relying on “informed sources,” which may include company executives who know what’s really going on. That Verizon started offering the iPad for the holiday season appears to signal that this prediction is poised to become true.

The question is, naturally, what form this new iPhone might take. At the very least, it would be the very same iPhone 4, with a CDMA chip, period, to function in the new network. Some suggest a hybrid chip that supports both CDMA and GSM; in effect, this creates a world phone, and Verizon already offers several costly models of that type. Another open question is whether this iPhone would also support the new LTE network Verizon is rolling out this year. It’s not as if Apple is ahead of the curve on such things, witness the fact that the very first iPhone didn’t support AT&T’s then-fledgling 3G network.

More controversial is whether Apple will make any changes to the external antenna layout to reduce the so-called “Death Grip” effect. The answer is probably not. If that happens, it’ll be on the iPhone 5, due this summer.

The other issue is whether Apple might just wait for the next iPhone before launching a Verizon model, but that would lose them millions of potential unit sales, at the expense of further growth in the Android OS market. More significant is how Apple will cope with the supposed weakness in Verizon’s technology, where you can’t make phone calls and use other services, such as email and Safari, at the same time. This is one of the perceived advantages of AT&T’s GSM network, one they’ve touted in their ads from time to time.

On the other hand, it may be possible to alter Verizon’s network to accommodate a similar setup, although that, too, may wait for the LTE rollout. I’ve seen speculation on different sides of the question, and since cell phone engineering matters are way above my pay grade, I’ll avoid further comment on this issue.

But consider this: The iPhone will come to Verizon when all the pieces of the puzzle come together, and that includes the expiration of the exclusive deal with AT&T. And the latter, my friends, was the biggest impediment of all, although some media pundits don’t seem to realize that simple fact.

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