iPhone 3GS on T-Mobile's Network May Happen This Fall

News Analysis: A T-Mobile manager leaks iPhone plans but says it's for the 3GS version of the Apple iPhone.

As eWEEK reported back in early June, it appears that T-Mobile will be getting Apple's previously exclusive iPhone later this year. The new ruckus that's making the rounds now appeared because Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson sent out a tweet reporting that he'd been told by a manager at T-Mobile that the carrier will get the 3GS version of the Apple device. This has resulted in a lot of speculation as to why such news would be sent out over Twitter rather than through the magazine's own reporters.

I don't know the answer to that question. However, we at eWEEK have been reporting that the T-Mobile iPhone is going to appear for several months, including stories by Nick Kolakowski and me on June 10. The fact that T-Mobile will be selling the iPhone should surprise no one. The company already sells the device in Europe and has an exclusive arrangement in Germany, which is about to expire. It only makes sense that the company, which is a part of the giant Deutsche Telekom, would look for new markets. It also makes sense that Apple would let it.

After all, AT&T, which currently has the iPhone exclusive in the United States, is a finite market, and one that has probably begun reaching saturation. In addition, T-Mobile will have to do very little to make its existing iPhones work in the United States. It may be that they'd have to add one of T-Mobile USA's 3G frequencies that's not in use in Europe, but beyond that, they already have what they need. A frequency adjustment is a fairly minor change in the world of smartphones-much less significant than a change from GSM to CDMA, which is what will be required for the future Verizon Wireless iPhone.

What's curious about the rumor, however, is the report that the iPhone that T-Mobile will get to sell will be the 3GS rather than the iPhone 4 that AT&T has. Perhaps this is due to contractual issues, or perhaps it's due to Apple's inability to crank out even more iPhone 4 models. So if the 3GS report is actually true, which remains to be seen, we still don't really know why that might be the case.

The fact that we don't know for sure won't keep anybody from speculating, of course. The T-Mobile iPhone already exists, and it already works on the European version of 3G. This HSPA+ network is very similar to the one that T-Mobile is bringing on line in the United States, and it's dramatically faster than anyone else's data network. Right now it's about twice as fast as Sprint's 4G network, and T-Mobile is already saying that speeds will be upped significantly later this year. If the existing T-Mobile iPhones can already handle its version of 3G, then this is one sure way to avoid the clogged networks that are creating pain for iPhone owners on the AT&T network.

But that still doesn't answer the question of why it's alleged to be the 3GS rather than the iPhone 4. Since the European version of the iPhone 4 also works on T-Mobile's HSPA+ network, it's not so likely to be a technical problem, unless it's somehow related to the iPhone 4's infamous antenna. Again, this isn't clear.

So what would bringing the 3GS to T-Mobile accomplish?

For customers, that question is easy. Beleaguered AT&T customers would finally have an option. People who live or work in areas without AT&T coverage (the eWEEK location near Washington, D.C., for example) could finally use an iPhone for something besides playing music-they could make actual phone calls. And, of course, it would give Apple an additional outlet for its iPhone line, which, considering that the 3GS is already paid for, would be a great source of revenue, and we all know how much Apple loves more revenue.

T-Mobile, of course, will likely get lots of new customers and will have ways to retain existing customers, especially if its subsidies are favorable. This will come in handy when its parent company starts the process of buying pieces of Sprint. Again, there's nothing like a little more revenue to grease the wheels of commerce.

But speculation aside, what will really happen? I think it's a safe bet that T-Mobile will have an iPhone in one form or another in time for holiday shopping. The company already has some big plans for product introductions during that period, and it should be no surprise when the iPhone shows up at company stores in the United States.

Whether it will be the iPhone 3GS, followed shortly by the iPhone 4, is still open to speculation. But I think you can plan on seeing a T-Mobile iPhone in November, followed by a Verizon iPhone in late January.

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...