I was recently contacted by a reader who is having a problem with getting their AT&T carrier unlocked iPhone 5S to fully work with ATT MVNO Airvoice Wireless. The individual presented with a rather peculiar issue in that inserting the Airvoice SIM card into their iPhone caused the “cellular data network” option to disappear under “cellular settings”, while inserting T-Mobile based SIM cards did not exhibit this behavior. For those of you familiar with iOS, this of course means that the option to edit APN settings is no longer present. Without this, the user is unable to send or receive MMS, or even establish a data connection to the network, and who would be happy paying for something they cannot use? The person is not alone in having this issue. Many others attempting to use ATT MVNOs have experienced said issue, particularly since iOS 6 or even earlier and with all subsequent versions that have since come out. For some strange reason, a few select ATT MVNOs are known to work out of the box with their supplied SIM cards despite not having access to the “cellular data network” setting, and so the question becomes why?
Why Do Some ATT MVNO Sim Cards Work With The iPhone and Others Do Not?
Prepaid Wireless providers Straight Talk, Net10, Cricket, Pure TalkUSA , Consumer Cellular, and ATT's own Prepaid brand are the only providers whose SIM cards are supposedly known to work correctly with the proper APN's automatically set right for data and MMS out of the box. All others will not work, and will in fact require many of you to jump through hoops, such as setting up a profile on Unlockit.co.nz just to get your data working properly without functioning MMS. This is what my contact had to do to finally get data working on Airvoice. Unfortunately, this person and many others out there have already wasted many hours of their time trying to research this issue both online and by contacting tech support from the MVNO. This particular individual I've been in contact with is more of an advanced user and was fortunately able to get somewhere on their own, but many others out there will simply feel lost when presented with this issue.
One could speculate that this is simply a programming error or bug on Apple's part, but since that “bug” came out well over a year ago and has been known about at least since the introduction of iOS 6 but still has not been fixed, it seems that
ATT's Partnership with Apple
Apple has long had a partnership with ATT that even predates the iPhones initial launch in 2007, a time when the iconic phone could only be purchased and used through ATT. That exclusive relationship remained for several years, seemingly coming to an end in early 2011. Given the issues above, and for reasons that will soon be described, it seems highly likely that some kind of special relationship still exists between the two companies today. After all, why would the device work well with select ATT providers but not with the majority of them? On top of that, the person that contacted me has informed me that they tried placing the Airvoice SIM card into an old Android phone that they had laying around, and with little trouble they quickly got MMS and data working. This and the other previously mentioned issues lead me to believe that what Apple and ATT seem to be doing here, is not fully following the voluntary agreement that ATT signed on for in regards to CTIA's guidelines for unlocking cell phones.
However, it's still hard to comprehend why ATT would rather push customers towards its most profitable MVNOs or itself while also risking losing that customer altogether to a rival carrier. It is possible that the cost of retaining a customer on its most profitable MVNOs is worth more than losing some customers to rival carriers. ATT and its MVNOs may also get to save pennies on the dollar in bandwidth costs when some of their iPhone customers don't switch MVNOs and just live with MMS that doesn't work. One could also speculate that there is no agreement at all, and Apple is in fact the one that wants ATT to pay up to unlock the settings profile in iOS when any ATT MVNO SIM card is used with the phone.
Whatever the case may be, it is highly unlikely that we'll ever get to know the reasons why this shady practice is happening. It is still extremely frustrating to purchase a device, and as an end user not be able to do whatever you'd like with it. I'll be attempting to contact Apple and ATT to see if they will provide any insight to this matter, but I don't have high hopes for an explanation. I anticipate each company pointing the finger at each other or giving no response at all. I'd also be interested in knowing what some of you out there are doing to work around this problem. If some new light does get shed, I'll update this post with that information.
It's been several months now since this article was first posted, and both ATT and Apple have elected not to comment on my inquires into the matter. However, the tipster who was a source of information for this article has provided an update on his particular situation. Although his APN settings still seem to be on lock down by both ATT and Apple, he has gone through with a jailbreak to circumvent the issue. The user is happy to report he is now able to get both data and MMS working properly on iOS. He is using an app called Tetherme to accomplish this for those of you who may be in a similar situation looking for a solution to said issues. It is still really a shame that some of you have to jump through hoops such as this, and pay extra money to get such a basic feature as MMS working on your iPhone.