China has abruptly terminated LTE access for the Apple Watch Series 3 without explanation. The reason might have been prompted by the government related to security concerns over the device. It’s worth noting, however, that all three major carriers in China are state-owned. The Wall Street Journal had reported that LTE functionality was available on China Unicom at launch, but new subscriptions were terminated a few days later. So far, existing users are unaffected. Analysts believe that the government was concerned about the fact that it couldn’t track who was using the new Apple Watch due to the use of an eSIM. Can you say, big brother?
China strictly regulates mobile phones. Users must register under their real names with a network carrier. The latest Apple Watch poses a challenge to the existing user identification system, industry analysts said. The watch contains a new and tiny version of the SIM card, called embedded SIM, or eSIM. The eSIM is embedded in the watch by Apple, not by carriers. The benefit of a device carrying an eSIM is that, with software, users can choose a telecom operator and a communications plan. But in China, that new system raises the question of how carriers and regulators can track the device user’s identity.
China Unicom said that they were only offering LTE access on a trial basis. Meanwhile, Apple has indicated that they knew about the problem but was referring inquiries to the carrier. An interesting twist to this is that all three carriers are indicating that it will be available later in the year. Is that true? Or is it a way to appease the masses? Previously, Unicom had specified the following:
Cellular service available only for mobile lines opened in Guangdong, Henan, Hunan, Shanghai, and Tianjin.
Getting back to these security concerns. Many believe this is the reason for it being unavailable. But there is also the possibility that the government simply wanted to track their citizens. Because the Apple Watch uses eSIM, they aren’t able to do so. Which is in contradiction to China’s strict regulation policies. Specifically, analysts believe the problem lies in China’s user identification system. When users purchase a smartphone in the country, they register for a SIM card under their real names with a network carrier. But, the eSIM is placed in the device by Apple, not carriers.
Because of this, officials at China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are said to be studying how to resolve the issue before granting any broad cellular access to the Apple Watch. So perhaps it will be coming later in the year. But analysts think that this could take months.
Apple is used to butting heads with China. Last year, they faced the shut down of iBooks and iTunes stores due to the release of a controversial, independent movie. Over the summer, Apple had to remove a majority of VPN apps from the App Store in China following regulations that require such apps to be authorized by the Chinese government. It definitely looks like a case of big brother, and unfortunately, there’s nothing Apple can do about it.