Apple SIM details emerge: AT&T locks SIM to network, T-Mobile allows customers to switch

Although the new Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) SIM card for its new iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 promises to let customers switch between different carriers' service plans on the tablets, there are a number of caveats to the service that have recently come to light. Most notably, AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) confirmed that if customers purchase an iPad with the new Apple SIM card and activate cellular service via AT&T, the Apple SIM card will be locked to AT&T's network and customers will need to purchase a new SIM to activate the device on another carrier.

This caveat was first highlighted in a series of posts on Twitter by T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) CEO John Legere about the Apple SIM. AT&T later confirmed the stipulations. The news takes some of the shine off the premise of the Apple SIM--that customers can use it to freely switch back and forth between carriers.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint (NYSE: S) support the Apple SIM, as does UK operator EE. Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) does not support the Apple SIM but does provide wireless service for Apple's new tablets. As Apple explains on its own website, if customers purchase an iPad Air 2 or iPad mini 3 from a carrier retail location, the Apple SIM will only be compatible with that carrier's service. If customers purchase the new tablets from an Apple retail location, customers can activate service from any carrier supporting the Apple SIM.

AT&T stressed that although customers will be locked to its network once they choose AT&T's service on the new iPad, the device itself remains unlocked. "With us you can change carriers with this iPad any time you want," AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told Re/code. "It is an unlocked device. … All [you] have to do is switch out the SIM in the device so it works on another carrier."

A T-Mobile spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that it will let customers on the new iPads switch from its network to other networks and then come back to T-Mobile--as long as they are not leaving a network that locked the Apple SIM.

Siegel told Re/code that AT&T's decision "is just simply the way we've chosen to do it."

Apple also lays out the choices on its website. "The data plans vary by carrier," the company states. "For instance, in the United States, you can choose a domestic plan from either Sprint or T-Mobile and also pick an alternate plan from the other carrier as needed. When you choose AT&T on iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3, AT&T dedicates Apple SIM to their network only." Apple added: "If your Apple SIM becomes dedicated to a specific network and you want to choose from other carrier programs, you can purchase a new Apple SIM from an Apple Retail store."

As for Sprint's policy, Apple notes on its website that Sprint stores "will only carry iPads with legacy Sprint SIM cards (not Apple SIM cards)."

In his tweets, Legere noted that Sprint "requires that the IMEI associated with a device (activated with an Apple SIM) be in their network registry to activate. That means an #iPad originally sold in any other carrier store will not activate on @Sprint, even if you use an non-configured Apple SIM, that is, unless the customer makes the effort with these carriers to include their IMEI in the registry."

When asked about Legere's comments, Sprint spokeswoman Michelle Mermelstein declined to directly address them. She simply told FierceWireless that "iPad Air 2 and iPad mini 3 devices that are sold in Apple and Apple-fulfilled channels will contain a new SIM card (Apple SIM) that allows the consumer to select and switch between service offerings from participating carriers, including Sprint."

Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo indicated last week on the company's third-quarter earnings conference call that Verizon does not plan to support Apple's SIM. "We have our own SIM card that we are putting in the devices, both in our indirect channels and our store channels," he said. "So that's really all there is to be said on that issue."

On Twitter, Legere summed up the situation for consumers: "Bottom line… it's complicated… and it is an emerging change in the mobile ecosystem that we will have to figure out as we go."

For more:
- see these two separate Re/code articles
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

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