Sorry to Samsung, Verizon, T-Mobile and everyone else in the mobile industry trying to make 5G a thing. The next-generation wireless technology still needs a cheerleader who can break through to the mainstream. Fortunately, Apple is right around the corner with the iPhone 12, which the company will likely announce on Oct. 13. (Here’s everything you need to know about the iPhone 12 and 5G.)
If this were any other year, 5G would already be a much bigger deal. After a mixed start in 2019, 5G coverage has improved, the number of devices — including Samsung’s Galaxy Note 20 — has grown, and pesky network compatibility issues have largely been resolved. Apple’s next flagship iPhone, widely expected to support 5G, would serve as the capper to a year of 5G excitement.
Of course, it’s far from a normal year. The coronavirus pandemic has kept millions in their homes, which negates the need for high-speed wireless access on the go. Millions of jobs lost and an uncertain economy mean premium-priced 5G devices are more out of reach than they should be.
Enter Apple and its uncanny ability to whip consumers into a frenzy over the latest technology that competitors have already embraced (think wireless charging in the iPhone 8). In these dire times, something like an Apple event offers a rare bright spot.
5G, meanwhile, could use a shot in the arm and Apple’s ability to generate tons of excitement. Getting more consumers on those new networks means these carriers have more experience dealing with higher demand, letting them work out the kinks and ultimately provide smoother, faster service. More people using 5G phones also drives the industry to come out with follow-up devices that are slimmer, more power efficient and less expensive — just as it did with 4G.
Getting broader adoption is also the key to figuring out the killer app for 5G, which even after more than a year still hasn’t really appeared. Keep in mind that services like Uber or livestreaming didn’t take hold until after 4G matured a bit — but with the prior generation, you could at least point to a big jump in speed from 3G. The nationwide 5G speed is only modestly better.
“For all the posturing of the major carriers saying they have 5G coverage, I have yet to talk to someone (who can) articulate why they must have 5G other than it’s new,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.
The need for more adoption but lack of a killer app is a classic chicken-and-the-egg dilemma where Apple could bring a solution.
After all, analysts believe it’ll almost immediately become the second-largest seller of 5G devices once it launches the iPhone 12, leapfrogging Samsung, which has been at this game for more than a year.
Despite the pandemic, a lot of consumers will be looking to upgrade to a new iPhone — some as a way to future-proof themselves for the rise of 5G. Most understand that 5G may not impact them now, but it could be more beneficial down the line — even if they don’t yet know exactly what it is.
Apple’s done it before, whether it’s talking up wireless charging, mobile payments or wide-angle cameras. Those features — which appeared in rival phones often years before — suddenly become must-have bells and whistles once they arrive on the iPhone.
“Apple has to launch a 5G iPhone because customers buy phones to last several years,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. “Most customers don’t want to buy a phone today and feel it’s fully outdated in six months.”
Apple doesn’t comment on speculation about potential future products.
Completing the picture
Ask the carriers about the potential impact of the iPhone and they’ll plead ignorance for fear of incurring Apple’s wrath. T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert offered the closest thing to a tease back in an interview with CNET’s The Daily Charge podcast after the company’s Un-carrier event in July.
“A dream of ours would be ‘wouldn’t it be awesome if we exited this year with substantially all the flagship devices being compatible, not just with 5G, but with our particular approach to 5G?'”
AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McEflresh, meanwhile, teased a pickup in demand this fall.
“Over the past few years, we’ve seen fewer people upgrading their phones, but as more major manufacturers release their 5G-capable devices, we anticipate increased demand during a busy Fall and Holiday season,” he said in an e-mailed statement. “We’re also committed to a range of price points so more consumers have the opportunity to enjoy fast and reliable connectivity.”
Verizon Wireless CEO Ronan Dunne noted that there are already more than 5.4 million 5G handsets deployed in the US and more than half of those are on the Verizon network. “This is starting to be real,” Dunne said at the 5G World virtual trade show last week, according to Light Reading.
None of the companies would even utter the word iPhone, but it’s clear they’re gearing up for a big wave of demand for 5G thanks to Apple.
iPhone 12’s X factor
The carriers better be ready. As CNET editor Patrick Holland notes in his column, the marquee feature of Apple’s new iPhone will be out of its hands and in the control of Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, which have widely varying experiences when it comes to 5G.
T-Mobile boasts the widest coverage of 5G, but it uses a low-band frequency of spectrum that is just a little better than 4G. It also launched faster midband spectrum in 81 markets.
AT&T, meanwhile, has a nationwide network of low-band spectrum, as well as pockets of so-called millimeter wave, which offers insane speeds that can surpass the fastest home connection. But the downside is the limited range — think of it as a souped up Wi-Fi hotspot — in select markets.
Verizon, meanwhile, is expected to launch its nationwide 5G network later this year and has largely touted that limited millimeter wave network in 35 cities. But even in those cities, the coverage is located in busier city centers and sports arenas that are emptied out because of the pandemic.
Apple does have some control and the question will be whether it opts to give its iPhone 12 access to all or some of the 5G networks available. Last year’s 5G phones were a bad purchase because they were often limited to one carrier’s network or a particular flavor of 5G. While many of the premium 5G phones launching this year are better and picking up multiple bands, rumors remain that Apple may save millimeter wave access for its higher tier device.
The company will also have control over how it plans to market 5G, whether it’s to highlight faster downloads or a seamless FaceTime experience. For many watching its livestream, it’ll be the first time they get a sense of what the wireless technology is all about, filtered through the famed Apple polish.
“The average consumer doesn’t know how to assess 5G, they just know it’s supposed to be the next best thing in mobile,” Lopez said.