The Apple Watch Series 3’s most important new feature has reportedly been cut off in China, possibly due to government “security concerns,” according to a new report. The S3 launched in China with LTE functionality in September, with cellular connectivity provided by China Unicom. But, abruptly and without warning, LTE functionality was terminated for new subscribers just about a week later.
Customers who signed up for LTE prior to the termination are, so far, unaffected — but LTE is no longer an option for new subscribers, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Unicom said on its website that the feature was only made available on a “trial basis,” and the carrier gave no indication when or if it would return. Apple, for its part, only stated that it has been “informed” about the LTE suspension, and referred questions back to Unicom.
Industry analysts, however, theorize that the LTE suspension was likely a result of government security concerns — specifically, their ability to track Apple Watch users. Cupertino’s flagship wearable uses a different suite of technology than standard mobile devices, specifically the new eSIM that’s installed by Apple during manufacturing, rather than locally by a carrier.
“The eSIM (system) isn’t mature enough yet in China,” one analyst told the WSJ. “The government still needs to figure out how they can control the eSIM.”
That complicates things for China’s government, as they can’t simply apply their strict LTE regulations to the new product. Questions remain about how carriers and government officials will track an Apple Watch owner’s identity. And while the state previously approved trial certificates for Apple Watch LTE functionality in August, no formal certification was given.
On Apple’s S3 cellular support website, LTE functionality is now being listed as a feature “coming later this year” for all three Chinese carriers. Presumably, when local regulators can figure out how to track Apple Watch wearers. It’s worth noting that all three major carriers in China are owned by the state.
Reportedly, regulators and officials at the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology are currently figuring out how to resolve their security concerns before allowing broad cellular access for Apple Watch owners. According to analysts, that’s a process that could take months.
China is an incredibly important market for Apple, and many analysts forecast that the company’s future rests largely on how well its products can do in the country. But, in addition to a somewhat dwindling market share, Apple has also had an uneasy relationship with the Chinese government.
After being pressured by regulators, Apple removed its iBooks and iTunes Movies services in China. Similarly, earlier this year, the company pulled hundreds of VPN apps from the Chinese App Store following stricter government regulations placed on the anonymous browsing services. VPNs allow Chinese users to bypass the “Great Firewall,” browse the internet more freely, and buck government surveillance.