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Although the arrival of the new 5G-capable iPhone SE was probably the least surprising announcement from Apple’s Peek Performance event yesterday, there was still actually one small thing the rumour mill got wrong even on that one.
Despite nearly a year of fairly reliable information that the new iPhone SE would support all the same 5G performance as the iPhone 13 lineup, it turns out that wasn’t entirely true.
The new iPhone SE offers very healthy 5G capabilities, to be clear, but it’s not quite as capable as Apple’s more expensive flagship iPhone lineup.
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Specifically, the new iPhone SE lacks support for the mmWave 5G frequencies — those that normally run in the 26–39GHz range. These are the frequencies that power Verizon’s original “Ultra Wideband” (UW) network, although the carrier has since expanded its definition of “Ultra Wideband” to include the new C-band spectrum it rolled out in January.
To be fair, although the predictions of full mmWave support came from the oft-reliable Ming-Chi Kuo, it was also somewhat speculative; sources said the iPhone SE would use the same Qualcomm Snapdragon X60 chip as the iPhone 13, which technically does support mmWave, but that doesn’t mean that Apple was planning to enable it.
After all, every iPhone 13 sold globally includes the same X60 chip, and yet only those iPhone 13 models available in the U.S. offer mmWave support. There’s more to enabling these frequencies than just the modem chip — Apple also has to build the necessary antenna arrays, known as antenna-in-a-package modules. That’s no easy task, as we heard in the months leading up to the iPhone 12 announcement.
Why You (Probably) Shouldn’t Care
For widespread commercial cellular networks, it’s fair to say that mmWave has largely been a dud.
While these higher frequencies — and the faster speeds that they can deliver — can be very useful in commercial and industrial applications for 5G technology, they’re mostly irrelevant for customers of cellular networks.
The problem is that even though mmWave frequencies can deliver astonishing speeds — Verizon claims users of its UW network can hit peaks of 4Gbps — they’re extremely short range.
This is just how the laws of physics work when it comes to radio waves. Higher frequencies offer better speeds, but shorter range. Anybody who has ever set up a Wi-Fi router at home knows that there’s a big difference between even 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, and mmWave runs an order of magnitude higher than that, starting at 26GHz.
So, when Verizon’s competitors claimed its fastest coverage didn’t cover more than a bus stop, it wasn’t as big of an exaggeration as you may have thought. While T-Mobile was chastised for its ads, the reality is that Verizon’s mmWave coverage isn’t usually good for much more than a typical city block.
This is why Verizon never expanded mmWave beyond core urban areas. It would have required thousands of 5G transceivers placed only a few hundred metres away from each other to deliver the kind of performance that mmWave promises. It’s also why most Verizon 5G users have never even seen the “UW” symbol light up on their iPhones.
Verizon has also tacitly admitted to this by adding the new C-band spectrum as part of its “Ultra Wideband” network, rather than its “Nationwide 5G” network.
This means more iPhone users will start seeing that ethereal “UW” show up beside their signal bars, but while that does mean faster speeds, it doesn’t mean mmWave speeds.
While Verizon put all of its eggs in mmWave when it began rolling out 5G, T-Mobile focused on what was quite literally the opposite end of the spectrum. It began rolling out a nationwide 5G network on the 600MHz (0.6GHz) frequencies, blanketing all 50 states with basic 5G coverage.
Then, T-Mobile played the ace it was holding — it took the 2.5GHz spectrum that it had inherited in its merger with Sprint, and began deploying it to create its new “Ultra Capacity 5G” network, bringing faster 5G to 165 million people before its rivals could even get their hands on similar mid-band spectrum.
It’s no surprise that Verizon dropped $45 billion last year to pick up a sizeable chunk of mid-band spectrum. While it’s had to fight with the aviation industry to get it rolled out, its new 3.7-3.9GHz C-band spectrum is already starting to make a big difference in the performance that Verizon customers are seeing.
At this point, it’s probably fair to say that mmWave is all but dead. It’s unlikely that Verizon or AT&T will roll out very many additional mmWave towers.
After all, while faster 5G is always nicer, there’s a law of diminishing returns; no mobile device user realistically needs the kind of 4Gbps speeds offered by mmWave. While mmWave was good for Verizon’s marketing in the early days of 5G, mid-band 5G can deliver more than enough speed — up to 1.5Gbps, in theory — while providing substantially better coverage.
Going forward, it’s likely that mmWave will be limited to places where it provides a clear benefit, such as stadiums where dense concentrations of 5G devices would commonly be found. The higher mmWave frequencies are ideal when it comes to delivering fast and reliable 5G to thousands of devices in a small area.
However, the mid-band spectrum that’s now available to all three carriers is the “sweet spot” for normal 5G coverage, as it provides the best balance of range and performance. This is precisely what they’re all focusing on now.
In fact, AT&T reportedly just dropped $9 billion to acquire a new chunk of mid-band spectrum in what’s become dubbed the FCC’s “Andromeda” auction. The race for mmWave spectrum is long over, and now carriers are duking it out to gain as much mid-band turf as they can.
The iPhone and ‘Andromeda’ Spectrum
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the iPhone SE will support those new frequencies either, so AT&T customers may miss out. That’s not something you’ll need to worry about now, of course, since AT&T just picked up this new spectrum, but it’s expected to begin deploying it later this year.
According to Sascha Segan of PCMag, AT&T has confirmed that the iPhone SE will not work on its upcoming 3.45GHz 5G network, although it may seem like it is.
The iPhone SE will still cruise along on AT&T’s network. It will get all of AT&T’s 4G frequencies, and it will show a 5G or 5GE indicator sometimes, although those will generally signify 4G levels of performance.Sascha Segan, PCMag
As Segan points out, it’s difficult to figure out where this “Andromeda” spectrum fits into the spec sheets for Apple’s iPhone models. Not only does it lack a specific band designation, but it’s also kind of tucked in the middle of everything else.
Technically speaking, the iPhone SE supports all the same bands as the iPhone 13 except for the three mmWave bands — n256 (26GHz), n260 (39GHz), and n261 (28GHz). This means that if the iPhone SE doesn’t support the new “Andromeda” spectrum, then neither does the iPhone 13.
In other words, the iPhone SE isn’t a step backward concerning sub-6GHz 5G. It should support all the same carriers and frequencies that the rest of Apple’s iPhone 13 lineup does — except for mmWave, of course.
In fact, the lack of 3.45GHz Andromeda support shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Segan points out, the only smartphone models on the market that do support this are those in Samsung’s newest Galaxy S22 lineup.
This is likely at least partially thanks to its use of Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon X65 modem chip, and Segan adds that there are a couple of Motorola phones coming that might add this support too, but needless to say, the iPhone SE isn’t the oddity here by any stretch of the imagination.
As AT&T hasn’t rolled out much C-band or any Andromeda spectrum yet, it’s hard to say how much this will end up mattering to consumers. But if you want the absolute best AT&T performance on your iPhone, you should probably wait for the iPhone 14 to come out this fall.Sascha Segan, PCMag
Lastly, Segan notes that it’s really hard to say how much this will even matter in the long run. The 3.45GHz Andromeda spectrum doesn’t exist yet for actual real-world use, so we’ll have to wait and see exactly how AT&T chooses to deploy it. It’s certainly not something we think anybody should lose sleep over.