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iPhone Q&A - Revised November 20, 2011

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What is the difference between EDGE and 3G? Why does the original iPhone support EDGE and not 3G?

Please note that this Q&A specifically refers to the original iPhone. However, this Q&A is useful both for general definitions and comparison of the two wireless standards as well as historical information regarding the specific implementation on the iPhone.

Cingular (no longer online) once defined EDGE -- which stands for "Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution" or "Enhanced Data for Global Evolution" -- as:

A third-generation, high-speed, mobile data and Internet access technology. It's fast enough to support a wide range of advanced data services including video and music clips, full picture & video messaging, high-speed color Internet access, and email on the move.
The Cingular EDGE network is available in more than 13,000 cities and towns and in areas along 40,000 miles of highways. It provides average data speeds between 75-135 Kbps.

Although Cingular calls EDGE a "third-generation" technology, it is commonly called a "2.75G" network, as it does not offer the true speed of a 3G network.

Cingular once defines 3G -- which the company marketed as "BroadbandConnect" -- as:

The first widely-available service in the world to use HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access). . . BroadbandConnect provides average mobile data connections between 400-700 Kbps with bursts up to more than a mega-bit per second. It delivers approximately ten times the speed of dial-up Internet access.

To generalize, EDGE is not much faster than a 56k dial up connection, whereas 3G offers broadband speeds. EDGE is available widely in the United States, but Cingular is rapidly increasing the number of metropolitan areas with support for 3G as well.

Why Apple is supporting EDGE instead of 3G is puzzling to many, including Henry Norr from the always excellent MacInTouch. In a detailed, but unfortunately deleted, piece regarding the 2007 MacWorld Expo, he notes:

EDGE is already yesterday's technology, and it will be even more so by the time the iPhone ships. Probably Apple had compelling reasons for adopting it anyway - battery life may be one, as HSDPA is said to consume considerably more power than EDGE - and there's no way to know at this point whether EDGE will feel slow in the iPhone's Safari-based web browser. But many users, especially the tech savvy, are bound to feel some qualms about shelling out $500 for a cutting-edge device that doesn't support state-of-the-art networking.

In an article in the New York Times, John Markoff speculates that it might be possible for Apple to upgrade the iPhone to support 3G with a firmware upgrade prior to shipping.

However, Peter Rojas of the Engadget blog debunks this theory, stating that:

The sources we've spoken to have made it pretty clear that Apple hasn't wedged a UMTS or HSDPA radio into this thing. Not that we wouldn't mind this being true. We're pretty bummed that the iPhone doesn't have HSDPA -- once you taste 3G, it's hard to go back to anything slower -- but it's semi-understandable that they'd want to use an EDGE radio that'd cost less and be less power hungry.

As originally published on January 19, 2007, concluded:

Ultimately, only those within Apple know why Apple decided to support EDGE instead of 3G, but it is reasonable to speculate that it has to do with either the cost of and availability of access or battery life.

On September 18, 2007, in a Q&A session with investors, Steve Jobs confirmed that the original iPhone did not yet support 3G due to battery life issues.

Does the iPhone use a MVNO?

Judging from e-mail messages received, there seems to be some confusion regarding the definition of "MVNO". One reader asked if the iPhone "had MVNO capability" and consequently it is worthwhile to note that MVNO is not a feature of a phone.

MVNO stands for "Mobile Virtual Network Operator" and refers to a company that purchases access to another company's wireless network and then resells access to consumers using their own brand name rather than that of the network. Webopedia has a longer definition that you may wish to read as well.

Ultimately, Apple could have decided to operate as a "MVNO" and sold the iPhone bundled with an Apple service plan running "on top of" a third-party network. However, the company instead decided to initially partner with Cingular/AT&T Wireless and released the iPhone exclusively on the Cingular/AT&T network in the US. Apple has partnered with other providers in other markets as well and is not expected to become a MVNO.

Interestingly, however, as noted by MacRumors on April 10, 2008, an abandoned patent application shows that at one time Apple was considering acting as a MVNO for the iPhone. Furthermore, after the death of Steve Jobs, it also was revealed that he would have preferred to bypass the carriers entirely and have the iPhone simply use the wi-fi spectrum.

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