How Apple will bring 5G to the iPhone 12

Apple (Image credit: Apple)

Late last year, after a bunch of petulant pundit hot takes about how the iPhone 11 would be doomed, so very doomed because it didn't have 5G, I did my best to calmly, rationally explain why those first-generation modems were too hot and power-hungry, the networks so few and far between, and the capacity nowhere nearly at mainstream iPhone scale yet.

And… the iPhone 11 somehow managed to not only survive without a lick of 5G, but thrive. As in a best-selling. So, yeah, told you so, whatever.

But now, this year, the next-generation modems are slightly better, the networks are slightly bigger, and even though 5G is still a mess, rumor has it Apple will be going all-in come the fall.

But what does that really mean?

Apple's Culture

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone, much less those that cover the company, that Apple didn't race out the gate to internet comment FIRST!!11 the iPhone with 5G.

I mean, as quick as they've been to adopt new Wi-Fi technologies, that's how conservative they've traditionally been with cellular radios.

It took until the second-generation iPhone 3G for the iPhone to go… 3G, after all. And, until the iPhone 5 for it to go LTE.

And, you know what, by doing that Apple spared its customers hour-long battery life like the HTC Thunderbolt, and an even worse experience on carriers like AT&T that could barely provide service on the networks they'd more fully built out.

Now, I honestly still don't think we've reached those inflection points for 5G yet either, but Apple just might, because all the rumors are pointing to go time being the iPhone 12 this fall.

History of iPhone modems

Ok, so, Apple started off working with Intel on a 5G modem for the iPhone.

The original iPhone used Infineon modems, but those were GSM-only, and when Apple expanded from AT&T and onto Verizon in the U.S., they had to go with Qualcomm to support CDMA.

GSM, or Global System for Mobile Communications, is what most of the world was using. CDMA, or Code-Division Multiple Access, is what Verizon and Sprint used in the U.S. back then. And Qualcomm had it wrapped up so tight that even though these kinds of technologies were supposed to be licensed under FRAND terms — freely, reasonable, and non-discriminatory, it was effectively impossible to do so.

So, Apple ended up going with Qualcomm and making world-phones that you could use pretty much anywhere. But Apple had to pay an exorbitant Qualcomm tax to do it, which meant that tax got passed on to us. In other words, everyone in the world had to pay for CDMA even if they weren't buying a phone on Verizon or Sprint.

Apple, like Sauron, does not share power… I mean profits, so began looking for alternatives. At least for phones not being sold on Verizon or Sprint.

That led them back to Infineon, which had been bought by Intel. At first, Apple replaced the Qualcomm modems on just the GSM iPhones, which were the vast majority of iPhones, but as CDMA gave way to LTE and Voice Over LTE on all iPhones.

Now, the Intel modems didn't work as well as the Qualcomm modems, but they worked well enough for Apple's cost to benefits analysis. In other words, to get on Apple's Olympic modem team, all you had to do was sprint 100 meters in under 10 seconds. Didn't matter if Intel could do it in 9.9 and Qualcomm in 8.2, both were under 10 seconds. Also didn't matter that Qualcomm could do it on pavement, grass, or mud, and Intel couldn't.

It meant not having to deal with Qualcomm and what Apple considered to be their gouging, abusive, anti-competitive practices. Except for all the lawsuits that almost immediately began flying back and forth.

But that was LTE, and now 5G was coming, and Qualcomm had gotten just as much, if not more of a stranglehold on the technology and had just as much, if not more of a lead in the modem technology needed to use it.

Apple and Intel tried to roll their own, in a way that Qualcomm believed only further violated their patents and licenses and amped up the lawsuits.

But, in the end, Intel just couldn't deliver a 5G solution in anything approaching a timely enough fashion. So, Apple and Qualcomm decided to bury the very large lawsuit hatchets they'd been hacking away on each other with to once again work on modems for the iPhone. This time for 5G.

Now, Apple did end up buying Intel's 5G modem business back in July, and there was some speculation that, Qualcomm license now fully in hand, they might just keep plugging away on a custom modem, but, realistically, that's probably still years away. Perhaps roughly the same number of years as the new Qualcomm deal away.

So, Qualcomm modem. And, while Apple won't comment on it, and Tim Cook is dodging analyst calls about it like he's in bullet time, the president of Qualcomm hasn't been nearly as tight-lipped.

"Priority number one of this relationship with Apple," he said back in December, "is how to launch their phone as fast as we can. That's the priority."

5G Technology

To make things even more complicated, 5G isn't just 5G. We've been spoiled by LTE because, for all intents and consumer purposes, nobody even has to think about which LTE technology works on which LTE network. We all just buy phones, pop in SIM cards, and go about our lives. The pain of EDGE and HSPA and EVD-O just foggy, desperate-to-be-forgotten memories.

But, now, 5G… Hi!

I've gone over it before but it's worth going over it again. There's actually a few different kinds of 5G, the two most important for this discussion being sub-6 and mmWave.

Low band, also known as sub-6 because it operates below 600 megahertz, isn't much faster than LTE — maybe 20% at best — but, as my friend and colleague Daniel Bader likes to remind people, most people still don't have access to good LTE coverage and sub-6, with its range and ability to penetrate buildings and walls, will mostly just deliver on that promise for those people.

So, while the technorati may belittle it, it will likely end up being the most meaningful and important part of this generation of 5G.

High band, also known as mmWave because of how short the wavelengths are at those frequencies, is much, much, much faster than LTE, but has almost no range and no ability to penetrate buildings or walls. Like if you stand beneath a tower, you're fine. If you walk or turn or, you know, it starts to rain, you can drop back down to LTE.

So, while this may be really real 5G, it may also be close to useless for consumers and end up being relegated to business uses, like WiMax.

5G Implementations

One thing I haven't gone over before, but is worth going over now because it's been causing some confusion, is that connecting to cellular networks, including 5G networks, involves more than just the modem proper. There's the modem, the RF front end, the antennas…

There have been rumors about Apple working on its own custom RF front end as well, for example, or buying Broadcom's RF front-end business.

Recently, there was also a rumor that Apple would be making its own 5G antennas, and that quickly got conflated and panicked into Apple ditching Qualcomm and making its own modems. And, no, please, stop, they're two different things.

Apple's been making its own antennas for years, after all. (Anyone remember the iPhone 4?)

Apple and Qualcomm are going to figure out what they can do in the time they have to do it, and then we'll all get to judge how well they do it come the fall.

The iPhone 5G

So, here's my guess as to what we'll see with the iPhone 12.

Apple will have LTE versions of the iPhone 12 available for the vast majority of markets where 5G simply makes no sense whatsoever yet. Whether those are cheaper or not or offset some of the high international prices, we'll have to wait and see.

Next, the iPhone 12, which replaces the current iPhone 11. Rumor has it we'll be getting two of those this year, a smaller and a bigger model, just like the pros had last year. And these, both smaller and bigger, will support low-band sub-6, and only sub-6.

Lastly, the two new, iPhone 12 Pros, which replace the current iPhone 11 Pros, regular and max. These will support both sub-6 and the high-band mmWave. In other words, all the 5G. All of it.

How much will it really matter to most of us? Here's what my colleagues Michael Fisher and Hayato Houseman have to say about 5G on the brand new Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra.

It should be a little better come end of the year and going into next year, but we'll have to wait and see just how much.

Hopefully, with both Apple and Qualcomm able to manage power efficiency and radio use well enough that it doesn't hit our newfound iPhone battery life bliss like Optimus Prime in full on Mack truck mode.

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Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.