Two years ago, when Qualcomm was commercializing early 5G components as Intel struggled to produce 5G smartphone modems, Apple appeared to be in an unenviably poor position — dependent on an Intel solution that might never come to market while a dozen rivals were ready to go with Qualcomm-based 5G devices. Once it became apparent that Intel’s 5G modem mightn’t be ready in 2020, Apple made an eleventh-hour deal with Qualcomm, rushing iPhones with Qualcomm 5G chips to be ready for the 2020 holiday shopping season.
Since then, the conventional wisdom has been that Apple will boost the still-young cellular standard, singlehandedly generating tens of millions of 5G phone sales and officially launching the 5G era. Despite the earlier availability of Android phones, that’s basically what happened with 4G, and it could certainly happen again. But after suffering through nearly two years of geographically iffy and whipsaw-like U.S. 5G performance, I’ve lost confidence that 5G support will actually matter to most iPhone customers — at least, in many countries and cities outside China.
Let’s quantify Apple’s likely impact. In January 2020, Samsung announced that it had shipped (not sold) over 6.7 million 5G phones in 2019, enough to be the world’s leading 5G device vendor. Four months later, Strategy Analytics reported that all vendors combined had shipped more 5G phones (24.1 million) in 2020’s first quarter than they had in all of 2019 (18.7 million). Even though the COVID-19 pandemic would likely slow down actual sales of shipped units, 5G was clearly picking up steam.
Those numbers look impressive, but Apple is expected to easily surpass them. During the last two holiday quarters before it stopped reporting unit sales, it sold over 77 million iPhones each Christmas. Even if its upcoming 5G phones account for only half of its holiday 2020 shipments, and even if its sales are down due to the pandemic, it will probably help the industry collectively double or triple 2019’s total 5G phone unit sales by the end of 2020.
From my perspective, the problem is that 5G phone adoption numbers don’t really mean much at this point, because the presence of a 5G modem inside a device doesn’t guarantee anything about actual 5G performance for a purchaser. A year or two ago, 5G was being touted as the next huge leap forward for technology, and there was no shortage of excitement over how its high-bandwidth, low-latency capabilities would impact everything. In theory, when there are more 5G phones, there are more people enjoying super fast downloads, multiplayer cellular games, and mixed reality services. But unless cellular providers have been holding back some big network infrastructure reveals, it looks like U.S. 5G device users won’t have much to brag about this year.
Millimeter wave 5G — the “high band” version with the most transformative potential thanks to greater bandwidth and massive speed increases — has rolled out so sluggishly as to be almost unusable in the United States, while mid band 5G is similarly under-available here. Sprint, which maintained the country’s only dedicated mid band 5G network, recently and unceremoniously discontinued its 5G service after being acquired by T-Mobile. Now carriers are rolling out more limited low band 5G, which may or may not offer any performance advantages over 4G, depending on where you live.
In countries such as China and South Korea, as well as parts of Europe, mid band 5G has rolled out widely, delivering performance that in some cases is nearly as good as early high band 5G, but in others closer to two or four times better than 4G. All three of the top U.S. carriers have signaled that they’ll start offering mid band 5G in the near future, though whether any of them will have it widely available in time for the 5G iPhones’ launch remains uncertain.
Despite years of intense speculation and discussion by everyone who follows the company, Apple itself has been conspicuously silent about 5G. For better or worse, the company has generally underplayed cellular throughput as an element of its iPhone launches, and has never been first to support a new cellular standard. With the exception of 2008’s iPhone 3G, Apple hasn’t flagged cellular generational support in any iPhone name, and spends little keynote time making cellular speed promises. In the 4G era, Apple only briefly mentioned that iPhones and iPads could reach certain speeds under optimal cellular conditions. Part of this was due to its use of Intel modems, which historically lagged behind the peak 4G speeds of Qualcomm parts, but part was due to uneven domestic and international 4G infrastructure.
Since most people only understand 3G, 4G, or 5G performance as it exists and evolves where they live, commute, and work or study, they mightn’t realize that a given generation’s cellular performance can be dramatically different from country to country, city to city, and year to year — problems that now seem certain to occur again in the 5G era. One person may see 5G iPhone speeds of 2Gbps in a specific area, while another may hover around 40Mbps, fifty times slower. In other words, 5G might be capable of revolutionary speeds right now near your apartment in a major city, but offer no advantage over 4G in a rural home 50 miles away.
The necessary cellular infrastructure to guarantee consistently excellent 5G performance everywhere just doesn’t exist right now, at least in most countries. Worse yet, there isn’t even infrastructure to guarantee even slightly impressive 5G performance everywhere. For most carriers, the floor is essentially 4G, and regardless of whether millions of Apple customers buy 5G iPhones, many of them won’t see a change from the status quo.
Over the next eight months, I expect that analysts, investors, and writers will closely watch iPhone sales as an indicator of 5G device penetration, and that some will correlate strong (estimated) numbers with an increased interest in 5G. My view is that a significant number of users will be making the purchase based on factors other than 5G, with the expectation that the 5G-specific part of the investment will pay off over the phone’s three-year life span. Meanwhile, the real numbers to watch will be the numbers of 5G mid and high band towers added by carriers, and the reports of speeds customers are getting from those towers. It will certainly be nice to finally have a 5G iPhone, but without the fast 5G infrastructure to support its new functionality, it might not be worth paying extra for 5G service — a challenge only cellular operators will be able to resolve.