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New iPad 4G data connection will only work in America

UK's Freeview TV, existing 3G squat on slab's LTE freqs

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One of the main new features in Apple's just-announced third iPad is 4G mobile networking: but keen fanbois planning to purchase it should note that the new fondleslab will only be able to achieve 4G connection in North America for the foreseeable future. Even in the States it won't be able to change networks.

The "New iPad" is Apple's first foray into LTE, the standard the world at large considers to be 4G, but despite conforming to that standard it can use either Verizon or AT&T networks, not both: and it won't be able to use LTE connectivity anywhere else in the world.

Unlike 3G, which resides in the same band internationally, or 2G, which runs in a handful of bands, LTE is heavily fragmented with more than 32 different recognised bands. In America LTE has been deployed by AT&T and Verizon in the 700MHz band, but the two operators are still far enough apart to require different hardware in the iPad - and in the UK that whole band is full of Freeview terrestrial television.

It's worth noting that the terms 2G, 3G and 4G have no legal definition, so anyone is free to call their handsets anything they like. In the USA it's common to claim HSPA+ as "4G", and it seems the latest iPhone 4S firmware even throws up a "4G" logo when connected to such a network. In Europe we consider that to be 3G, with 4G being LTE*. The International Telecoms Union used to say that "4G" had to be over 100Mb/sec, but has relaxed that rule in the face of overwhelming misuse of the term.

AT&T runs two LTE networks in the USA, one in the 2.1GHz block generally used for 3G networking, and the other in what's known as "Class 17, 700MHz". The latter refers to the bands AT&T bought at auction in 2008 which vary across the USA, but run in non-contiguous slots between 704MHz and 787MHz.

Verizon, meanwhile, runs a single LTE network in what's known as "Class 13, 700MHz", between 746MHz and 787MHz.

The US network operators have been busy lobbying the FCC to require that all 700MHz LTE devices support all bands, but without any success so far.

So when one buys a new iPad, with 4G connectivity, one has to decide if one wants an iPad which works on Verizon, or an iPad which works on AT&T, and if you're hoping to get an iPad which works outside the US (or Canada) then you're out of luck.

So what are we being offered on this side of the pond? At a glance it seems we're getting the AT&T variant, which makes sense as it can at least use the 2.1GHz channel and get onto a 3G connection. It can theoretically also use that 700MHz, Class 17, slot, but until the day Freeview gives up broadcasting that's not going to be much use. (Our non-UK readers should be aware that the UK is currently transitioning from analogue to all-digital TV signals. The most common digital solution being taken up is terrestrial Freeview, so it isn't going away for a long time.)

But it could be worse - in Germany Vodafone has an operational LTE network, but it's at 800MHz so can't be used by the new iPad which is going to take some explaining to the disappointed customers.

When we do get LTE in the UK it will be at 800MHz and 2.6GHz, just like Germany, but neither of those is being used for LTE in the USA. 800MHz is harmonised across Europe, and 2.6GHz is harmonised around the world, so we can expect to see support for both bands coming to the iPad eventually, but not for a while.

Bottom line: if you buy a new iPad now to use outside the States (or maybe Canada) the 4G part of the package isn't happening. ®

Bootnote

*Or WiMAX, if WiMAX wasn't dead on its arse.

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