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Tello Lacks 5G Support On iPhones, Signals Potentially Larger Problem Ignored By Regulators

Tello Lacks Support For 5G And Other iOS Features On New GSM Partner Network
Tello Lacks Support For 5G And Other iOS Features On New GSM Partner Network
By Joe Paonessa – Mar 23, 2021

Towards the end of 2020, then Sprint MVNO Tello Mobile announced its transition timeline to convert over to the T-Mobile network. It was due to happen the week of November 22nd. Unfortunately, the week came and went without changeover. A Tello Mobile representative shortly thereafter confirmed to me that the transition had been delayed in order to perform advanced-stage "testing and bug fixing." Tello did not specify exactly what bugs it needed to work out. But perhaps it was due in large part to something that was not exactly a bug.

As Christian Smith recently pointed out in a blog post, Tello does not appear to support 5G network access for iPhones. And YouTuber Stetson Dogget, who is currently doing another review of Tello, tells me that the company sent him an email stating that with the new network, iOS users currently don't have WiFi calling, MMS group chat, or Visual Voicemail. He too cannot get 5G access on his iPhone. Similar statements have been echoed to me through comments on this website and through comments on Tello's own website. The issue isn't just a Tello problem, posters claim other T-Mobile MVNOs such as Hello Mobile also have the problem. So what could ultimately be the root cause here? Let's examine.

Tello Is Not The First Provider To Ever Have A Problem With Apple Devices

In 2015, I learned that with some AT&T MVNOs, customers with iPhones, even unlocked iPhones, did not have access to the most basic of features with their provider of choice. And by basic features, I mean some of the ones just described, like an inability to send or receive MMS picture messages or even connect to a data network. The problem was ultimately due to Apple removing access to the "cellular data network" setting so that iPhone owners could not edit their APNs. The only way to do so was to jailbreak the phone or move to another provider where Apple wasn't disabling the setting or where the APN or "carrier bundle" was automatically set correctly.

Apple Appears To Be At The Center Of The Issue

It wasn't until the middle of 2017 that I really got a better understanding of what had been going on with Apple and select MVNOs. H2O Wireless sounded the alarm in a web forum that it was "currently in negotiations with Apple" to get MMS working on iPhones. That statement was highly suggestive that H2O would have to reach some sort of contractual agreement with Apple if it wanted its iPhone-owning subscribers to have access to MMS and other features many would take for granted as being included with their phone plans. Indeed, a commenter on this website claiming to be an employee of another AT&T MVNO said they were in the same boat as H2O Wireless. The commenter stated:

"Getting an agreement with Apple to obtain carrier settings may or may not require a monetary payment/agreement just for the settings alone. I am an employee of another AT&T MVNO and we were in the same boat as H2O until we one day had an agreement in place with Apple.

I’m not sure what the exact details of the agreement are, but I do know it involved our company taking on a lot of iPhones (at full price) that are not easy to sell at full price. Even with third party financing available, we still found it difficult to move iPhones without substantial discounts (promos) in place.

The only thing I am certain of is, this “agreement” required us taking on a large amount of iPhones over time, rumored to be in the low seven figure range, to fulfill our agreement."

It Took Years For Red Pocket Mobile And H2O Wireless To Be Able To Support A Basic Feature Like MMS On iPhones

Unfortunately, it took nearly 3 years after that for H2O Wireless to able to fully support MMS, Hotspot, Facetime, and other features on iPhones. In February of 2020, BestMVNO reported that H2O Wireless had finally gained access to those features.

Red Pocket Mobile is another provider that long suffered these restrictions caused seemingly and solely by Apple. After years of not being able to support those features on its AT&T-based plans, in December of 2020, the company finally announced it could offer those features to its iPhone using subscribers. It came as no coincidence, upon announcement of offering those features Red Pocket Mobile began to sell the iPhone 11. The company featured the phone on its homepage. And of course, this aligns perfectly with what the commenter working at another AT&T MVNO said above, they had to agree to buy and sell iPhones to get Apple to grant access to those features to their customers.

Unfortunately, I have reason to believe that Tello is now in the same boat as those previous AT&T MVNOs once were in. Tello may now be forced to buy new iPhones from Apple to sell through its website or risk alienating up to half of its potential user base by not being able to support features that are generally taken for granted by wireless subscribers. One of those features now appears to be getting 5G network access on iPhones like their Android counterparts have. Apple seems to be in so much control over this situation that they actually have a webpage set up that tells which providers support 5G, Visual Voicemail, Hotspot, and other features on iPhones. The list doesn't seem to be 100% up to date though as Pure Talk and H2O Wireless are not listed on the Apple support page. And of course, Tello is certainly not on the list.

6-Years And Counting, Where Are Federal Regulatory Agencies?

It has now been 6-years since I first started reporting on this issue. I am pretty upset to see that it still appears to exist. One would hope that a provider would stand up to Apple and sue to stop this or that a federal regulatory agency would step in to put an end to it. But I presume that most of these providers simply don't have the money or time to fight it in court and thus must give in to Apple's demands. And it's even worse for the smaller providers who don't even have the financial wherewithal to fulfill Apple's requirements thus putting those providers at a competitive disadvantage compared to their industry rivals. According to Counterpoint Research, in the 4th quarter of 2020, Apple had a 65% market share of smartphone shipments in the USA. That's a lot of potential customers for an MVNO to have to say no to if they can't meet Apple's requirements. If what's outlined here is as it appears to be, Apple's behavior is anti-competitive and harmful to the market. It's time for a regulatory agency to step in and fix this problem.

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