Although Apple is going all-in on 5G technology for this year’s iPhone lineup, it’s becoming more apparent that it’s going to be limiting that to sub-6GHz 5G technology for the vast majority of its new devices.
Rumors about Apple’s plans for the much faster mmWave 5G technology have been all over the place, with reports back in January that it was struggling to build the antenna technology necessary to support the higher frequencies used by mmWave, which run from 30GHz all the way up through 300GHz — an order of magnitude higher than the 300MHz (0.3GHz) to 2.7GHz ranges used for 4G LTE and sub-6GHz 5G.
These reports suggested that Apple could potentially delay the mmWave 5G iPhone until early 2021, although reputable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo doubled-down on his earlier predictions that the faster 5G iPhone would in fact arrive alongside the rest of the 2020 iPhone lineup this fall, although it would be limited to only five countries — the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, and the United Kingdom — basically the ones where mmWave technology would be available.
However, other analysts offered dissenting opinions, and more recent reports over the summer suggested that if it did come this year, the rollout of the mmWave model might be even more limited — perhaps confined to the U.S. only, where Apple would at least need to release it as a concession to Verizon’s 5G network, which operates exclusively on mmWave frequencies.
This was backed up by another report this week from Kuo himself predicting that demand for the mmWave iPhones could actually be much lower than expected, since the ongoing pandemic has slowed down the rollout of mmWave 5G on many carriers, and that Apple may only ship a fraction of the mmWave iPhone models this year that it was originally expected to. However, Kuo didn’t offer any insight into whether mmWave 5G would be confined to specific models or whether all of the five countries that he named in his earlier report could still expect to have mmWave 5G iPhones available.
mmWave to the Max
A new report from Fast Company is giving us a much clearer picture of what this will actually look like in practical terms, however, revealing that not only will the mmWave 5G be confined to the iPhone 12 Pro, but that only the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max will be getting the fastest 5G technology.
The Fast Company report cites one of its sources from the wireless industry as saying the power and antenna requirements for mmWave 5G required the additional space and larger battery capacity that’s only available in the 6.7-inch iPhone. This wouldn’t be surprising if the rumours are true about the challenges Apple has faced in developing its own in-house Antenna-in-Package (AiP) modules for its 5G iPhones.
Notably, if the report is true it would also be the first time since the iPhone 8 that Apple has differentiated the features between the sizes of the same iPhone model. In the case of the iPhone 7 and 8, only the “Plus” models gained the additional telephoto camera, but the iPhone XS Max and iPhone 11 Pro Max differed from their smaller 5.8-inch counterparts in size only. The same also held true for the iPhone 6/6s lineup back in the day.
Where’s It Coming?
Fast Company also adds that Apple is expected to launch the 6.7-inch mmWave-capable iPhone 12 Pro Max in only three countries — the United States, Japan, and Korea — rather than the original five that Kuo predicted.
This may be far less of a problem than it sounds, however, since mmWave has barely been deployed the other two countries that were on Kuo’s original list, Canada and the U.K. In fact, both of those countries have only barely begun auctioning off spectrum and handing out the licenses that would allow carriers to deploy mmWave networks, and mmWave is a particularly low priority for carriers in Canada where the relatively sparse population density makes the extremely short-range frequencies impractical at best; most Canadian carriers are putting their money on 3.5GHz 5G instead, and although an mmWave rollout will undoubtedly arrive in major urban centres, it’s not likely going to even begin until late 2021.
It also seems likely that the mmWave 5G iPhone in the U.S. will be limited to specific carriers such as Verizon, and possibly AT&T. A Verizon 5G iPhone without mmWave capabilities wouldn’t really be a 5G iPhone, since it would leave users unable to access the carrier’s 5G network. On the other hand, there’s absolutely no reason that T-Mobile needs to sell an mmWave compatible iPhone since that carrier has deployed sub-6GHz 5G only.
AT&T is the wildcard here, since it has both a widespread sub-6GHz 5G network and mmWave coverage in a few cities, but while AT&T would almost certainly like to be able to sell the fastest 5G iPhone available, that may depend largely on how many Apple is actually able to supply, as it stands to reason that Apple will be prioritizing carriers like Verizon that need mmWave support to make the 5G iPhone viable.
At this point, however, unless you’re a Verizon customer who happens to live in one of the relatively few cities that offer 5G service, you’re probably not going to care too much about an mmWave iPhone, at least in the short term. However, the limited availability of mmWave-capable devices will still be somewhat disappointing for those who hoped to upgrade to a model that would be more future-proof and ready for newer 5G technologies as they arrive.