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VimpelCom Launches 4G iPhone Services in Russia


By Olga Razumovskaya

VimpelCom is the first mobile provider in Russia that gave customers access to 4G networks, the service which was blocked by Apple Inc. until recently. 


MOSCOW—VimpelCom Ltd. has become Russia’s first mobile service provider to give customers using the newest Apple Inc. devices access to the fastest 4G networks since the Silicon Valley giant had blocked the service when the latest iPhone went on sale in October.

Until Thursday, access to long-term evolution, or LTE, technology on the newest iPhone models was unavailable in Russia. Industry insiders and analysts said Apple may have blocked the new models from accessing Russia’s major telecoms companies’ 4G service because of worries about the quality of Russia’s networks.

An Apple spokesman in London declined to comment.

Apple successfully tested its latest devices on VimpelCom’s network—which operates under the Beeline brand name—in Russia and decided to enable access to it, VimpelCom’s spokeswoman in Russia said.

“We have begun paying attention to the issue [of availability of latest iPhones on the company's 4G network] fairly early and have been holding talks with Apple for a while,” she said.

Russia’s leading telecoms company, Mobile TeleSystems, quickly followed with its own announcement Thursday that it has launched 4G services in Russia for Apple’s iPad Air and iPad Mini Retina devices in Moscow and several Russian regions.

MegaFon, Russia’s No. 2 telecoms company, already offers iPad Air services to its subscribers. But neither company has yet received permission to allow iPhone access to their 4G networks.

The Russian Federal Anti-Monopoly Service said it hadn’t received a complaint from other Russian mobile operators, but was monitoring the situation.

“Of course, this situation may become an object of scrutiny for FAS, as any case where a major market player is offering some or other opportunities to a limited number of users,” said Dmitry Rutenberg.

Russian telecoms companies have had an on- and off-relationship with Apple over the supplies of iPhones in the past. The top three Russian carriers all let their supply contracts lapse in recent years after complaining of getting stuck with obligations to buy large volumes of phones. Such arrangements don’t benefit operators in Russia because the country currently doesn’t allow the subsidizing of handsets in return for long-term cellphone plans. That puts such high-priced devices out of reach for most Russians.

Analysts say VimpelCom’s deal with Apple shouldn’t complicate the tech giant’s relationships with other Russian telecoms companies.

“It is only a matter of time before other Russian carriers will be able to offer 4G on new iPhones for their subscribers,” said Anna Lepetukhina of Sberbank CIB. “Apple is a very pragmatic company and it is only a matter of time and conditions before others reach a similar agreement with them.”

The announcement by VimpelCom comes just days after the company officially launched its LTE network across all of Moscow. The network is also available in six other Russian regions.