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Apple iPhone 7 Caution: GSM-only model lacks CDMA network support, precluding future use with Verizon or Sprint

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Update 12 September: I called Apple to try to buy an unlocked any-carrier phone (with both GSM and CDMA support) and was told that at this time Apple cannot/will not sell an unlocked carrier-free phone supporting both GSM and CDMA, but that it may be coming in a few weeks.

Update 13 October: SIM-free any-carrier iPhone 7 models can now be purchased.

...

If you think you might use your iPhone on Verizon or Sprint in the future, which carrier support is chosen initially matters, even if you do not intend to initially use that carrier.

Here’s the deal, which is a change from the iPhone 6 and 6s Plus. It involves the cell phone wireless technology, which is GSM (AT&T, TMobile, European countries and most of the rest of the world) or CDMA (Verizon and Sprint, and not much overseas).

  • Buying an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus for AT&T or TMobile means that it can never support Verizon or Sprint.
  • Buying an iPhone 7 or 7 Plus for Verizon or Sprint allows use on any of the carrier networks.

It appears that the model sold as for Verizon is actually a model supporting all networks, whereas the AT&T/Sprint model supports only AT&T and Sprint (GSM). The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus supported either type of network.

For those buying an unlocked phone, what this means is that it might make more sense to buy the Verizon/CDMA iPhone 7, even if planning to use it on an AT&T or TMobile network in the short term, since the iPhone could then be used on Verizon/Sprint in the future.

At least that’s what it seems; the Apple statement contradicts itself in saying that “it will use CDMA technology for voice and data” (conflating ostensible choice of carrier vs actual) and then says “it will work on AT&T and TMobile”: but it cannot work on AT&T if it uses CDMA for voice and data. Very poorly written.

All this may be for naught: the Apple Store page won’t let you buy an unlocked Verizon or Sprint iPhone without providing existing account information! Ditto for AT&T and TMobile. It’s non-functional, since one may want to *add* (not replace) a phone (“You'll keep your existing number and rate plan, Your current phone will work until you set up your new iPhone”).

The information on this is right on Apple’s sales page in fine print but only on the sales page FAQ (at least as this was written it was not on the iPhone 7 info page), and only if you expand the hidden information and only if you then expand the right question/answer:

Initial choice of iPhone 7 network may preclude use in the future on other networks
Apple iPhone 7 support for cell phone spectrum

This is bad of Apple to hide critical information so well, as it may be a real issue for users looking to switch carriers in the future, effectively forcing purchase of another phone. It’s one thing to have a pretty and simple sales page, it’s quite another to hide information of great import to some prospective customers*. Maybe Apple saves a little money by making this distinction with the AT&T/TMobile model, which is why the information is so carefully put in tiny text in hidden footnotes?

* This reminds MPG of the soldered-on memory fiasco in the Apple MacBook Pro (Apple later made that information visible)

Don H writes:

I have no intention of ever using Verizon or Sprint myself (in the past they have locked phones to their network and locked out US GSM carriers while still functioning overseas), but on general principles I would just as soon have a single phone that works under all circumstances if there are no other compromises to its design or performance. It also opens up more possibilities for future resale.

To Apple’s credit, they do seem to strive for a more simplified product matrix (at one point Samsung had 97 different SKUs in their phone lineup), but this schism with GSM/CDMA is puzzling. If the CDMA phone already has *all* the radio technology needed to handle every carrier in the US/world market (except for China who is their own special case), why make a non-CDMA model at all?

I can only think of the added licensing costs associated with CDMA technology, but that certainly isn’t reflected in the retail price of the different models. Perhaps enabling CDMA does cost a few bucks more, but Apple is willing to swallow that for those customers because many others don’t want that feature for their GSM-specified phones.

MPG: probably a savings of a few dollars per phone for the GMS model by leaving CDMA out (parts and licensing), which might add billions to the bottom line.

Don H writes again:

Apparently Apple is now using Intel as well as Qualcomm modems (to diversify vendors) for their GSM model. Unfortunately, the Intel modem doesn't include CDMA compatibility, so that complicates marketing, support, etc. Here's an explanation:

https://www.recode.net/2016/9/9/12863302/apple-iphone-7-intel-qualcomm

I'm sure more will be verified after the inevitable teardowns. So while we may not like the end results (or ambiguity when purchasing), this does make sense from a business viewpoint.

MPG: If the limitation were stated upfront, who in their right mind would choose a phone effectively locked to AT&T or TMobile? Particularly since it will be a phone with lower resale value, since it works only on GSM networks. The only reasonable conclusion here is that Apple buried the difference in a hidden Q/A question in a hidden FAQ by design, for, as noted, solid business reasons. It smells bad, at the least. But since the vast majority will be happy, who cares at Apple, since no one will be able to do anything about it very long after purchase, and those for whom it matters later will be a minority— let ’em just buy another phone—ka ching!

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