There’s been a lot of confusing information this year as to exactly what’s going on with Apple’s expected 5G iPhone lineup. While most analysts resolutely agree that every iPhone 12 model will be capable of supporting some flavour of 5G, there are some disagreements as to what those flavours might be.
Most of the debate centers around support for the ultra-fast mmWave 5G standard, which seems to be suffering through an “on again, off again” cycle of rumours. Even long before the current global health pandemic seemed destined to slow things down in Apple’s supply chain, reports surfaced suggesting that the company’s engineers were having problems with the Antenna-in-Package (AiP) modules that would be required to deliver mmWave 5G performance, since it operates at a significantly higher frequency range than traditional cellular services like 4G LTE and even the slower sub-6GHz 5G.
Meanwhile, analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, who has a solid reputation for accurately reading the tea leaves from Apple’s supply chain, continued to insist that all of the iPhone 12 models coming out this year would include mmWave support, at least in key markets where carriers also have the necessary infrastructure ready, including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Korea, and the U.K.
Subsequent reports from other analysts have muddied these waters a bit, suggesting that the mmWave support could be even more limited, perhaps only to the “U.S. version” of the iPhone 12, or only to the iPhone 12 Pro models. Most recently DigiTimes predicted that only half of the 5G iPhones this year would be enabled for mmWave. Of course, depending on how many iPhones Apple is expected to ship to mmWave-capable countries, this could still support Kuo’s take on things.
mmWave for 2020, But Maybe Not in 2021…
However, now DigiTimes is back with a new report that’s slightly more bizarre, suggesting that Apple actually will support mmWave 5G on all of its iPhone models released this year, but could actually pull back on that in its 2021 lineup.
The report, which was surfaced by MacRumors, cites industry sources in Taiwan as revealing that while the “2020 series of iPhones” will feature both sub-6GHz and mmWave 5G support, Apple is actually considering divvying that up into market-specific models next year which could support only sub-6GHz or only mmWave, depending on the carriers involved.
Since all of Apple’s iPhones are expected to use the exact same Qualcomm 5G modem chips, which should even feature the newest Snapdragon X60 by next year, Apple has been designing its own antenna modules, and mmWave antennas (AiP modules) are more complicated and more costly to design than those that support the sub-6GHz frequencies.
So while the 5G modem chips in every model of iPhone will support all forms of 5G, it’s not unreasonable that Apple could choose to exclude mmWave AiP modules from those units being sold in countries with carriers where mmWave simply isn’t available — especially if it’s not even expected to be rolled out in the foreseeable future.
Similarly, once upon a time even the iPhone models sold in the U.S. were differentiated by carriers, although that was also more common in the days when Verizon still used an older CDMA network. Still, it’s not completely out of the realm of possibility that Apple could choose to produce a Verizon-specific iPhone model that only supports mmWave and not sub-6GHz, since Verizon only has mmWave 5G and doesn’t seem to have any plans for a sub-6GHz network.
Even so, it does seem like a stretch that Apple would introduce universal 5G capabilities in this year’s iPhones and then subsequently take those features away next year. However, this also depends on what Apple’s plans are for the 2021 iPhone lineup. It is conceivable that Apple could decide to mix things up a bit if a major redesign is in the works, not to mention the possibility that Apple could have its own first-party 5G modem chips ready by next year, which could change the 5G landscape entirely.
Ultimately we’re not even sure yet what’s going to happen with Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup this year, of course, and once those models are released it may be possible to get a better indication of what’s going to come next.