The iPhone XS, iPhone XS Max, and iPhone XR pack some noteworthy new features, but 5G connectivity isn’t among them.
In fact, we probably won’t see an iPhone 5G until 2020, or potentially even later, despite the fact that some rival handsets are now 5G.
This may all come as a surprise to those who observed Apple’s boasts about significantly faster network performance from its newest phones.
So what’s the deal with the iPhone and 5G? Why hasn’t Apple jumped aboard the next-gen network bandwagon nice and early? And why is there still likely a long wait for a 5G iPhone? For answers to these questions and more, read on.
The iPhone XS is fast, but it’s not 5G
The iPhone XS and the iPhone XS Max (but not the iPhone XR) boast much faster network performance potential than any previous iPhone. But they’re still technically not 5G-ready.
Rather, the two flagship phones have support for Cat 16 Gigabit LTE, which is a very fast form of 4G. Cat 16 is capable of attaining peak download speeds of 1Gbps, or 1,000Mbps.
Cat 16 Gigabit LTE capability will potentially provide a two to three-fold increase in 4G network speeds compared to the iPhone X and iPhone XR, both of which pack lesser Cat 12 LTE modems.
This elevated performance is starting to enter the orbit of 5G. However, current expectations are that true stand-alone 5G will ultimately offer speeds of up to 10 to 20 times as fast, and will incorporate a range of new technologies and spectrum frequencies that will dramatically improve response times and capacity.
The iPhone XS is fast, then. But it’s not at 5G speeds. And that’s a situation Apple should want to remedy soon, as a survey reported by Barron’s shows “strong interest” in a 5G iPhone, with 18% of participants saying they’d pay $1,200 for such a phone. In contrast, 2019’s 4G models seemed far less appealing. So 5G could be a huge deal for Apple.
Will the next iPhone support 5G?
We can’t be sure of Apple’s plans - the company is famously secretive - but despite there being significant interest from consumers in a 5G iPhone, the likelihood seems very low that the next iPhone (expected to be unveiled in September) will support 5G, with all current rumours pointing to at least 2020 for the first 5G iPhone.
This isn’t that surprising. While Apple often leads the way with its design innovations, it’s famously slow to adopt new third-party connection standards. Historically, the company tends to wait until new standards are relatively mature and well on their way to mass-market adoption before it considers implementing them.
Apple’s handling of the switch to 3G and 4G provides ample evidence of this. The company didn’t equip the first iPhone with 3G connectivity when it launched in 2007, despite the fact that the first commercially available 3G networks had gone live globally in 2002 and 2003.
It wasn’t until the launch of the appropriately named iPhone 3G in 2008 that Apple adopted the by then well-established mobile network standard.
Apple was similarly late to the party when it came to 4G. By the time the 4G-ready iPhone 5 hit the market in 2012, consumers had already experienced around two years of 4G Android phone releases.
Even the aforementioned iPhone XS with its Cat 16 Gigabit LTE support arrived a good year and a half after the Samsung Galaxy S8 did likewise.
With experts predicting that 5G won’t even start to attain mainstream penetration until 2020, it would seem highly unlikely that Apple would consider a 5G iPhone before then, and news and rumours back that up, as we explain below.
iPhone 5G news and rumours
So far rumours about a 5G iPhone are almost all focused on which company might supply the 5G modem, and when it will be ready by.
The short answer to the first question seems to be Qualcomm, while for the second we’re probably looking at 2020. For the long answers, read on.
A year away and a new screen
The most recent 5G iPhone news comes from Ming-Chi Kuo (a respected analyst with a good track record for Apple leaks).
He claims that Apple will launch its first 5G phone in September 2020 using a Qualcomm modem (more on that below).
Two models – which for now we’ll call the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Max – are said to support 5G, and they will also apparently have different screen sizes to the iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max. The iPhone 12 will apparently shrink from 5.8 to 5.4 inches, while the iPhone 12 Max is said to grow from 6.5 to 6.7 inches.
There will also apparently be an iPhone XR successor, but this is said to be limited to 4G. That will apparently all change in 2021 though, when all three models are said to move to 5G.
The modem problem
One of the reasons we’re likely to be waiting until at least 2020 for a 5G iPhone is related to the modem. Originally it had been rumoured that Apple would launch a 5G phone in 2020, powered by an Intel modem. However, shortly after that Intel announced that for now it is bowing out of the 5G phone business, saying “there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns.”
So where did that leave Apple? Well, there's always Qualcomm.
If you’ve been following all things Apple, that might come as a surprise, as Apple and Qualcomm have been at serious loggerheads of late, to the tune of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit related to the licensing fees that Qualcomm charges for the use of its chips.
But it’s a dispute that’s seemingly come to an end, as the two companies have agreed to end their ongoing litigation and renew their contracts.
It’s an agreement that seemingly came within hours of Intel dropping out of the modem race and that’s probably no coincidence – not only can this renewed relationship allow for Qualcomm to make the iPhone’s 5G modems, it’s not a stretch to think the relationship was fixed specifically for that purpose.
However, Qualcomm coming in this late could still mean we’ll be waiting a while for a 5G iPhone. Indeed, Cowen (a financial services firm) in conversation with Bloomberg, has said that it might now be too late for Qualcomm - or any other company - to get the modems ready in time for 2020’s phone.
Looking ahead, Apple is reportedly working on an in-house 5G modem, which would help the company avoid future issues like this, but this may not be ready until 2025 according to reports.
When will we see a 5G iPhone?
Given all of the above, it is very unlikely that this year’s iPhone will support 5G, but next year’s very likely will.
Indeed, multiple analysts - including Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a great track record - have predicted as much, but even in 2020 it might not be widely available – Forbes predicts that “it could be that significant volumes may not be available until 2021”.
Though elsewhere it has been reported that Samsung might build the 5G modems in some regions, rather than Qualcomm having to manufacture all of them, which could help Apple meet demand and reduce costs.
However, while 2020 is looking likely, it is far from guaranteed. As noted above, Cowen claimed that it might be too late for Qualcomm to get the modems ready in time for a 2020 launch, while UBS analyst Timothy Arcuri had previously said for example that "there is an increasing likelihood that Apple will not be able to launch a 5G iPhone next year " - though this was before the situation with Qualcomm was fully resolved.
The first 5G phones and modems
One thing’s for sure. The 5G iPhone will not be one of the first 5G phones.
Qualcomm - the world’s biggest mobile chip maker - unveiled the first mobile 5G modem in October 2016. It’s called the Snapdragon X50, and some phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, have already launched with it.
At the Snapdragon X50 launch event, Qualcomm even provided its own 5G smartphone reference design. This handset was notable for featuring a tiny millimetre wave antenna, which will be a necessary feature of any early 5G phone hoping to connect to the higher 28 GHz frequency.
This is especially relevant as the X50 or similar could be what’s used in the first 5G iPhone now that Apple and Qualcomm are putting their differences behind them.
But as highlighted by Nokia the cost of adopting early 5G modem technology is set to be huge for any company. Apple is unlikely to be keen on paying a premium for access to unproven and (initially at least) scarcely used 5G modem technology, regardless of the supplier.
And Qualcomm’s reference design hints at what a major effort the first 5G iPhone will be for Apple’s fastidious designers. Apple famously agonises over every spare millimetre in its devices, so you can bet that the introduction of a 5G modem will prompt a major redesign - whether that be internal, external or both.
This is another reason that we’re not expecting Apple to join the 5G party until late 2020 at the earliest.
Useful read: What is 5G?