As much as some tech pundits have lamented the lack of 5G support in Apple’s 2019 iPhone 11 lineup, the fact is that the current iPhone models are already way ahead of the curve in every way that really matters.
For one, the iPhone 11 models are some of the few smartphones that already support the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, well ahead of many desktop computers and laptops. This means that the current iPhones can theoretically achieve speeds of up to 10 Gbps wirelessly, but will also be able to take advantage of lower latency and better performance even when networks are more congested, as is often the case with the proliferation of Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices in people’s homes. Then there are the benefits it will offer in the future as high-traffic locations like airports, malls, and stadiums begin rolling out Wi-Fi 6 networks.
Then there’s Apple’s adoption of Ultra Wideband technology, which is something that nobody else is doing yet. While the current use for it is sort of underwhelming — it helps you more accurately AirDrop to other iPhone 11 users — it’s expected to power Apple’s AirTags item finders, and even things like indoor navigation.
Now it’s also become apparent that the iPhone 11 is ready for cellular network enhancements in other ways that you may not have realized. As The Verge points out, wireless carriers have just gotten access to a whole new spectrum of radio frequencies which they’re planning to use to augment their existing networks with higher throughput speeds on both the LTE and 5G frequencies.
The new spectrum sits around 3.5 GHz, which is a higher frequency than the airwaves typically used for LTE, which means you’ll get faster speeds, although the range will be more limited (this works in the same way that 5 GHz Wi-Fi is faster than 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi, but doesn’t travel as far). However, the 3.5 GHz band still has significantly more range than the much higher mmWave 5G frequencies, which exist in the 24–100 GHz spectrum. This makes it a practical way to deploy faster 5G networks but also to enhance existing LTE networks.
This will be great news for users of Apple’s current iPhone models, however, as both the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro already support these 3.5 GHz frequencies, so there’s nothing that customers will need to do in order to start taking advantage of the faster speeds that carriers will be offering.
It’s also not going to take the carriers long to get going with this either. The FCC has approved four companies to administer the usage of the new spectrum, just to make sure interference is avoided, but carriers will be permitted to begin broadcasting on the new spectrum as soon as they begin working with one of those companies. Much of the spectrum also comes with “virtually no cost associated with it,” according to Dave Wright of the CBRS Alliance, which is an industry group that’s focused on putting this spectrum into use for mobile phones.
The FCC has actually been trying to get these 3.5 GHz airwaves open for years, but it’s been a challenge since the U.S. Navy has traditionally used it, and so it will still need to be managed, particularly in coastal areas, where the Navy will get priority over other signals just to ensure there’s no interference. However, there still appears to be plenty of spectrum to go around, and the FCC plans to auction off about half of it so that the mobile carriers can reserve it, while the other will be opened up for anybody to use as long as they’re working through one of the administrative companies. This will give carriers the opportunity to try out the new spectrum for free before committing to investing in an actual spectrum license, but it’s also possible that they could get the performance they need without having to pay for it, which could make the deployment even faster.
Carriers such as Verizon have in fact already been installing antennas to broadcast 3.5 GHz signals, while T-Mobile has expressed interest in it, and AT&T has plans to use it for LTE initially, and expand it to 5G use later on.