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What does iPhone 12 mean for 5G? Decoding the clues.

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shutterstock 1529135282-1240x600 - What does iPhone 12 mean for 5G? Decoding the clues.

Apple sure said a whole lot about the device market and global 5G readiness with this week’s iPhone launch. No, I’m not talking about the carefully-scripted event presentations. In fact, the most interesting revelations came from reading between the lines.

But let’s begin with the obvious: the star of this year’s iPhones isn’t an Apple innovation, it’s the 5G networks that will support them. We even saw Apple share the spotlight with Verizon, collectively touting speed as this year’s overarching iPhone story. This is quite a development for a company that spent years confidently setting the terms in its relationship with carriers. Now, both parties need each other. It says as much about the state of the mature smartphone market as it does the fruits of the undeniable labor the global telecom industry has put into getting 5G ready.

And really, that’s the loudest statement Apple is making with the iPhone 12: 5G has matured to the point that it is finally ready to unleash on the users whose experiences the company guards so closely. Put more simply, 5G is ready for primetime.

With that out of the way, the more subtle statements Apple made require a bit more decoding. And many can be found in the company’s choice of 5G bands it decided to include – or not.

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Banding Together For A Global 5G Push

5G network support has finally reached enough stability globally that it made sense for Apple to make a huge bet. And for the most part, it went all in, integrating twenty 5G bands. There’s so much more to the story, though. Let’s break down some notable aspects of Apple’s 5G band strategy:

  • mmWave for U.S. only – It’s worth noting that the world’s most high-profile smartphone will not initially support mmWave globally. It begs the question how this will be interpreted by different regions. Will policy makers delay auctions if they believe smartphone makers view mmWave as better suited to fixed wireless access? If operators are even able to get an experimental mmWave license, will they not even be able to test with the latest iPhone? Does Apple not see a global mmWave market anytime soon? The company is making a statement, it’s just not clear exactly what that is at this moment.

  • No n48 band for private 5G CBRS networks – Apple is supporting LTE Band 48 but not n48. Was this a deliberate exclusion? Were the auctions just too late for Apple to seriously consider adding the band? Whatever the answer, this puts iPhone 12 on the sidelines for private 5G network use cases in the U.S., at least. Apple is supporting the band covering 3.7 – 4.2GHz in Europe, though. Perhaps this gives Europe an advantage on this front.

  • Does Apple have a trick up its sleeve with band n79 support? – This band is best known for supporting 5G users in Japan and China but iPhones will ship globally with support. In most of the world, n79 is being looked at for decidedly non-smartphone usage, such as integrated access backhaul or fixed wireless applications. In some countries, it’s not accessible at all due to conflicts with other frequency ranges. Could it be that n79 may be poised for a starring role in certain future public safety applications?

Saying ‘Hi’ to more than just 5G for speed

Apple’s iPhone launch invitation said simply, ‘Hi, speed.’ 5G grabbed the headlines, but Wi-Fi also gets some love in the new device. With support for Wi-Fi 6 (though, no 6E) this is largely a table stakes move. Still, it couldn’t come at a better time. Let’s face it, with COVID-19 surges expected in the cold months ahead, huge populations will find themselves hunkered down indoors once again. And when this happens, they’ll be using Wi-Fi, not 5G. In fact, you could make the case that Wi-Fi 6 has more potential to impact user experiences than 5G for the average iPhone user at least through the early middle of next year.

This could be a hidden blessing for operators that may still have recurring nightmares about that time huge volumes of data hungry iPhones swarmed onto 3G networks, degrading network performance for all subscribers. While operators are of course much better positioned this time around with 5G, having these devices slowly come onto the network absolutely allows more time for monitoring, fine-tuning and assurance.

To this end, Apple’s plans to sparingly use 5G versus LTE in line with app demands also helps prevent overwhelming networks while protecting user experiences. Spirent knows from its testing that 5G can be a major battery drain. So, Apple’s Smart Data Mode is a really innovative way to hedge against network power consumption, but also bandwidth consumption (no surprise overage bills!). Pending 3GPP standards dealing with power management should also help iPhones and all other devices with this challenge as we look further down the line.

Quotes

5G grabbed the headlines, but Wi-Fi also gets some love in the new device.

Two more thing(s)

Apple knows that consumers are slowing on iPhone upgrade cycles so adding futureproofing-type features like Smart Data Mode ahead of industry standards makes sense. There are two other futureproof moves Apple made with iPhone 12:

  • 5G standalone support – While Apple did not disclose the official modem embedded in its new phones, we believe the devices are both 5G standalone and non-standalone compatible. As the timelines for 5G SA devices are accelerated, this will ensure iPhone 12 has the broadest compatibility with a range of evolving networks.

  • AR and more with LiDAR – Incorporating a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor is a hedge on eventual compatibility with future AR applications that have the potential to revolutionize everything from virtual workspaces and retail shopping to enterprise use cases and beyond.

No matter how you cut it, there’s more to the iPhone 12’s 5G story than we know right this moment. What is safe to say is that Apple has come to market with one of the most thoughtful 5G strategies yet. What happens next remains to be seen, but we look forward to continue following the many clues packed into this new device for answers.

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Tags: 5G, Devices + Services, Wi-Fi
Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

Principal Technology Strategist

Stephen works for Spirent's strategy organization helping to define technical direction, new innovative solutions, and market leading disruptive technologies which make a real difference. With close to 20 years experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with multiple service providers, start-ups and Tier 1 OEMs helping them drive innovation and transformation. Stephen is an ardent believer in connected technology and strives to challenge, blur, and break down the silos which prevent innovation and business success.