When Is The 5G iPhone Coming? (And Why You Should Care)

Illustration Hand Holding 5G iPhone over Cityscape Credit: Shaynepplstockphoto / Shutterstock
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You’ve probably been hearing a lot about “5G” recently — it’s the latest buzzword in the wireless industry as carriers begin to roll out the new technology and mobile phone makers clamour to promote new devices that support it.

Despite this, however, most reports have indicated that the iPhone will be slower to adopt 5G, arguably ceding the high ground to competitors who are expected to have their first 5G-capable devices ready this fall.

What is 5G All About?

Put simply, 5G is the “fifth-generation” wireless standard, superseding 4G LTE, 3G, and 2G before it. However, if you’re confused by all of this, we can’t really blame you, especially since carriers and device manufacturers — including Apple — have muddied the waters by misusing these terms over the years.

For instance, AT&T has been infamous for jumping the gun by mislabelling slightly-enhanced versions of older standards. Back in 2012, iPhones on the AT&T network gained a “4G” icon to indicate support for 3G’s HSPA+ standard, rather than LTE, and more recently users on iOS 12.2 began seeing a “5G E” label — AT&T’s way of branding its upgraded 4G LTE network. To be clear, this is not 5G — in fact it’s not even close.

True 5G, when it arrives, will promise speeds of up to 100 times faster than current 4G LTE technology. This means that, once fully deployed, wireless devices will be able to gain the kind of speeds that are normally only available from wired home broadband connections. In fact, 5G will be capable of speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second, although it’s likely it will be at least a few years before we see that kind of performance in the real world.

The extra bandwidth offered by 5G will also open up wireless networks to a much wider range of devices. The ultimate promise of 5G isn’t just that it will make your iPhone faster, but that it has the potential to eliminate traditional home Wi-Fi networks entirely in favour of simply allowing users to connect every single device they own directly to the wireless internet. It’s this latter part that has industry analysts the most excited about 5G.

So Why Is Apple Waiting?

Apple has a long history of not being the first in line to adopt new wireless standards. The original iPhone was released back in 2007, at least two years after AT&T (its only carrier partner at the time) had begun rolling out 3G networks across the U.S. While Apple began offering the iPhone 3G only a year later, the company similarly delayed its adoption of 4G LTE until 2012, a year after most U.S. carriers had begun rolling out LTE on their own networks.

So Apple’s approach to 5G shouldn’t be at all surprising. To be clear, the company isn’t dragging its heels in developing the technology — Apple has been testing 5G iPhones since 2017 — but it’s clearly taking a more measured approach to actually releasing a 5G-capable iPhone.

Some of this is simply Apple waiting for the kinks to be worked out, and carriers have already been having problems getting the technology rolled out in the U.S. Along the same lines, Apple probably doesn’t feel a burning need to a adopt new wireless technology in its iPhones that will only be useful in a few select areas — after all, even in their most optimistic estimations, carriers are not expecting 5G to be available outside of a handful of major cities this fall. The same was also true with Apple’s support for 3G and LTE, where the company appeared to wait until the technology was more widely deployed.

Apple’s ongoing war with Qualcomm has also likely had an impact on its plans. Qualcomm is well ahead of the game with its 5G modem chips, but Apple isn’t interested in buying chips from Qualcomm anymore. In the short term, Apple is likely to use Intel 5G chips, of which the new second-generation version is expected to be available for testing by Apple later this year, and ready in time for the 2020 iPhone lineup. Ultimately, however, it seems that Apple is making serious preparations to build its own 5G chips in-house.

To be clear, there are hardware issues as well. The first-generation of 5G chips available from both Intel and Qualcomm were hot and power-hungry beasts that required large antenna arrays. While Qualcomm will reportedly have its second-generation chip ready for at least some competing smartphones this fall, there will probably still be some new 5G models that have grown in size purely due to the larger batteries and antennas required to support 5G. Such a size increase would be antithetical to Apple’s design strategy.

Most analysts agree that Apple will have at least one 5G-capable iPhone as part of its 2020 lineup, although it remains unclear whether this will be limited to only specific models, and whether Apple will use Intel 5G modem chips, its own 5G modem chips, or even possibly a mixture of both.

Why should this matter?

Unless you’re an early adopter who just has to have the latest technology, you probably don’t have a reason to care about 5G on your mobile phone. Yes, 5G has the potential to be considerably faster, but how fast do you really need your iPhone to be? The leap from 2G (EDGE) to 3G was huge — it was basically like jumping from a dial-up modem to a broadband internet connection. Moving from 3G to LTE offered noticeable speed increases, but at that point most users would agree that the returns were already starting to diminish for normal everyday use.

However, solid LTE service typically offers download speeds of up to 40 mbps on average, which is on par with many people’s home internet connections. While 5G can offer significantly faster speeds that that, the practical use for these kinds of speeds is extremely limited on a mobile device like an iPhone.

5G does promise to improve the reliability of wireless network connections, but that will only happen once the wireless carriers have properly deployed and optimized the 5G networks, which is likely going to take considerably more time — possibly even beyond the projected 2020 release of a 5G-capable iPhone.

In the broader sense, 5G has a ton of promise — it can support a much wider array of devices and create a world where everything is simply always connected wirelessly, potentially eliminating the need for home broadband connections entirely. However, at this stage, we’re really not there yet, and it’s fair to say that come this fall, nobody but the tech analysts are really going to miss having a 5G-capable iPhone available.

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