Apple steps up iPhone roll out

Apple has significantly stepped up the roll-out of the iPhone, after signing a multi-continent deal with France Telecom, parent company of mobile operator Orange.

The deal brings official iPhones to countries including Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, Slovakia, Jordan and Egypt. Orange will also start to sell the iPhone in its African territories later this year, France Telecom said.

The news comes after Apple announced a multi-country deal with rival operator Vodafone now sells the iPhone in Vodafone in Greece, India and Australia, among other countries.

The move is bound to add further to rumours that Apple is preparing to launch a 3G handset, as the original iPhone's relatively slow GPRS and EDGE data connections were said to have deterred some operators from agreeing deals.

But the move is also likely to be, at least in part, a response to worries at Apple about the growing grey market for unlocked or hacked iPhones, which have been blamed for stock shortages in the US and Europe.

However, some observers believe that the latest deal will also increase pressure on Apple to allow multiple operators to carry the iPhone in more countries. At present, the two largest markets for the iPhone, the US and the UK, only have one official operator partner and no option to buy official, unlocked phones.

Official unlocked iPhones are available, albeit at a premium, in Germany and France. However, Apple has already agreed terms with two operators in Italy and Australia, and the Orange announcement adds Portugal to the list of countries where iPhone buyers will be offered an operator choice.

"It seems to me that Apple is building up its world-wide roll out of the 3G device. This announcement, coupled with the Vodafone and TIM announcement, also gives weight to the theory that Apple will support a multi-carrier strategy in some countries," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanese.