The iPhone 13 Doesn’t Move the Needle Much on 5G | What’s New (and Does It Matter for You?)

It’s about wider coverage, not faster speeds.
iPhone 13 Pro 5 Credit: Apple
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Last year, Apple entered the world of 5G technology with a pretty big splash when it debuted its iPhone 12 lineup. In one fell swoop, Apple gave customers the potential to get the same multi-gigabit cellular speeds whether they opted for the smallest iPhone 12 mini or the flagship iPhone 12 Pro Max.

It was such a big deal, in fact, that Apple even invited Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg to share the virtual stage at its iPhone 12 launch event, boasting mmWave 5G speeds of up to 4Gbps on the carrier’s “5G Ultra Wideband” network.

Of course, getting those kinds of speeds not only required a compatible iPhone 12, but also living or working in one of the relatively few urban areas where Verizon’s very short-range mmWave coverage was available. Later studies showed that this didn’t really apply 99% of the time.

Fortunately, Apple made sure that every iPhone 12 sold in the U.S. was capable of supporting mmWave 5G frequencies, so nobody needed to worry about whether they were getting the “right” iPhone 12 to support any U.S. carrier. However, the mmWave models were limited solely to the U.S.; those sold elsewhere only supported the slower sub-6GHz 5G frequencies.

Despite rumours of an mmWave expansion, however, it looks like things aren’t going to change with the iPhone 13. The mmWave-capable iPhone 13 models remain U.S.-only this year.

Total of 21 iPhone 13 Models

Apple has drawn even more lines for the iPhone 13 than it did for last year’s iPhone 12 lineup. While there will still only be two North American versions of each iPhone 13 model — an mmWave version for the United States, and a non-mmWave one for Canada, Guam, Japan, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands — Apple has added a new international variant.

Last year, there were two other versions of each iPhone 12: A version specific to mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao, and a “global” version for everywhere else. The iPhone 12 mini oddly had an extra version, with one for mainland China and another for Hong Kong and Macao.

This year, however, Apple has added a fifth column, with a version of each iPhone 13 specifically for Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. With the iPhone 13 mini also still split into separate versions for mainland China and Hong Kong/Macao, this actually works out to a total of 21 different iPhone models.

One notable change is that this year’s non-U.S. North American models will also be sold and supported by carriers in Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries were covered last year by the “global” versions of the iPhone 12 instead.

Fortunately, this isn’t something you’ll need to worry too much about, as Apple Stores and carriers in each country will only sell the versions specific to those countries, and we’re well past the days when U.S. customers had to worry about buying a “Verizon” or an “AT&T” iPhone. All iPhone models currently sold in the U.S. are compatible with all major U.S. carriers.

Furthermore, just like last year’s iPhone 12 lineup, all the North American iPhone 13 models support the same sub-6GHz 5G and 4G/LTE bands. This means that an iPhone 13 bought in Canada will still work fine on any U.S. carrier, just without the faster mmWave speeds available on Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network.

It’s also interesting to note that the new sixth-generation iPad mini does not offer support for mmWave 5G at all, unlike the cellular M1 iPad Pro models launched earlier this year.

More 5G Bands

While Apple naturally didn’t have nearly as much to say about 5G this year, Apple’s iPhone Product Marketing chief, Kaiann Drance, did say during Tuesday’s iPhone 13 presentation that Apple was adding support for more frequency bands to support 5G in more places.

Specifically, Drance said the iPhone 13 will offer 5G on 200 more carriers across 60 more countries and regions than the iPhone 12 did.

iPhone 13 5G 3

To be clear, however, what Apple’s executives didn’t say is that we’ll see faster 5G speeds – this is about enabling 5G in more places, not making it any faster in those places where it’s already supported.

Specifically, the North American iPhone 13 models add three more sub-6GHz 5G bands — n29 (700d MHz), n30 (2300 MHz), and n48 (TD 3600), while the U.S. model adds a third mmWave band — n258, which operates at 26 GHz.

What’s interesting is that the n258 band isn’t currently deployed in the United States, where Verizon and AT&T have only licensed the 28GHz and 39GHz spectrum. However, band n258 does cover the spectrum that’s being used in Europe, China, South Korea, and Australia. It’s also already in use by Telstra (Australia), Tele2 (Russia), and Telefonia Mobile Sammarinese in San Marino. This suggests that Apple could have plans to eventually bring the mmWave version of the iPhone 13 to other countries.

The Bottom Line

If your carrier already supports 5G on the iPhone 12, you shouldn’t expect any improvements in the 5G support on the iPhone 13. There’s no evidence that it’s going to be any faster than the iPhone 12’s 5G speeds.

This means that users in the United States and Canada aren’t likely going to see any differences in 5G performance on the new iPhone 13. The new iPhone adds a handful of new frequency bands, but these don’t apply to users in North America (despite being added to the North American iPhone 13 models).

Of course, if you live in a country where 5G wasn’t previously supported by the iPhone 12, the extra bands in the iPhone 13 will make a world of difference, as you may actually be able to get a functional 5G iPhone on your carrier for the first time.

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