Apple Sale of Unlocked iPhone 5s Is a Big Opportunity for T-Mobile

NEWS ANALYSIS: Whether T-Mobiles plans to sell the iPhone 5 rather than just try to attract buyers of unlocked iPhones remains unclear. But one way or the other, the iPhone is sure to figure prominently in T-Mobile’s business plans.

T-Mobile customers finally have a way to buy Apple’s iPhone 5, although it may not be through T-Mobile just yet. Apple quietly started selling unlocked iPhone 5s in both black and white colors in stores and online.

These phones are identical to the GSM phones sold for use with AT&T’s network, except they’re not locked, there’s no contract and there’s no nano-SIM card. An unlocked iPhone will set you back about $650.

While there have been rumors fueled by a prediction from a Merrill-Lynch analyst that T-Mobile would start selling the iPhone this week, eWEEK was unable to confirm that with T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who said in an email that he couldn’t comment about the iPhone at this time.

However, T-Mobile has already refarmed its HSPA+ network in 15 major cities including New York, Washington, San Francisco and (interestingly) Cupertino, Calif. – home of Apple. T-Mobile’s refarming means that the iPhone 5 will work with T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network at speeds up to 22.2 megabits per second, even in areas such as Washington, where the available speed is much higher. The iPhone 5 should also be compatible with T-Mobile’s LTE service when it’s launched in the second half of 2013.

While T-Mobile isn’t ready to announce any specific deals with Apple, the carrier is selling the nano-SIM cards necessary to make the unlocked iPhone 5 phones work on the T-Mobile network. Customers can buy those SIMs for pre-paid service or for a postpaid account, according to several staffers at T-Mobile stores in the Washington, DC, area, all of whom acknowledged that they have the nano-SIMs in stock. T-Mobile usually doesn’t charge for new SIM cards to existing customers, although one sales person told eWEEK that there would be a $20 charge for the nano-SIM.

Prospective customers of the unlocked iPhone 5 will have to wait for about a week to buy an unlocked iPhone 5, according to Apple’s Website. However a call to several Apple stores in the Washington, DC, area confirmed that customers who come to an Apple store can buy the unlocked version immediately.

There’s been a lot of talk about the prediction that Apple and T-Mobile would announce a deal sometime in early December. Some, such as GigaOM’s Kevin Fitchard, writing in The Washington Post pooh-poohed the idea, saying that with only 15 cities currently refarmed for 1900 MHz HSPA+, it would be impossible.

Fitchard apparently is unaware that around 15 regional carriers, most with smaller populations than T-Mobile’s upgraded cities, are already carrying the iPhone 5.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...