Imagining iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C: LTE, Bluetooth, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and no NFC

Collecting and analyzing the rumors surrounding Apple's 2013 iPhone line, we explore the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c cellular, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi radios

The iPhone is an amazing piece of technology in many, many ways, and a lot of those ways are predicated entirely on the radios, on being connected. It's that persistent connection, to the internet and to other devices - the connection of things - that makes it so powerful, that will make the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c so powerful. Whether those radios, for cellular networking, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi get upgrades this year remains a question, as does whether or not a near-field communications (NFC) chip will ever make an appearance in an Apple product.

iPhone 5s: Taking Wi-Fi to 802.11ac, still no NFC

Apple takes its time when it comes to cellular radios. The original iPhone supported only 2.5G, popularly referred to as EDGE. It wasn't until the 2008 iPhone 3G that Apple added UMTS/HSPA 3.6 networking (the number stood for the theoretical maxing megabits per second). In 2009, the iPhone 3GS doubled that to HSPA 7.2, in 2011 the iPhone 4 added EVDO rev A, slow as it was, for Verizon in U.S., and later, the iPhone 4S doubled it again to HSPA 14.4. Then, in 2012, the iPhone 5 got DC-HSPA 42 and LTE, with a theoretical speed of 100 mbps, depending on the carrier implementation.

There's no simultaneous voice and data with LTE, that means the GSM iPhone drops down to HSPA+ when on a call, and because EVDO Rev A doesn't support simultaneous voice and data either, the CDMA iPhone simply drops data. Apple could solve this as other manufacturers have, by including dual radios for voice and data, but because Apple prioritizes battery life and thinness, it's unlikely they'd take approach.

VoLTE (Voice over LTE) should solve this eventually. Until carriers move from circuit switched to packet switched voice, however, and go to purely IP-based networks, the ever radio-conservative Apple will feel no pressure to follow suit. Since LTE data is fragmented over 40 odd frequency segments around the world, however, it's possible Apple could adopt a chipset that can address more of those segments on a single model. Apple currently has 3 models globally. A newer, better chipset could either allow them to reduce that number, or to shift one of them over. For example, to something that supports Chinese TD-LTE.

Likewise, LTE Advanced, which has been rumored for the iPhone 5s, and supports channel bonding for even greater theoretical speeds - 150 mbps - has been deployed in very few places. So, while Apple could support it for markets like Korea, that's not how Apple has traditionally handled radio technology.

NanoSIM won't go anywhere either. Apple likely wants to get rid of it for an internal, customizable solution, but carriers throw fits over stuff like that.

Unlike the Macs, the iPhone trudged from the original's 802.11b/g support in 2007 to 802.11n on 2.4MHz only for the iPhone 4 in 2010 to 802.11n on both 2.4 and 5MHz for the iPhone 5 only last year. Earlier this year, however, Apple not only introduced a new MacBook Air supporting the much faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard, but they introduced new AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule routers on 802.11ac as well. While nothing's a lock until Apple announces it, 802.11ac for the iPhone 5s certainly seems possible at this point. That should make it up to 3x faster, and give it better range, than current 802.11n devices as well.

The iPhone 3G got the U.S. assisted Global Positioning System (aGPS) in 2008, and the iPhone 4S added the Russian Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) in 2011. Not much more to expect there. Likewise, when it comes to Bluetooth, the original iPhone started off with Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (enhanced data rate) in 2007. The iPhone 3GS went to Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR in 2009, and the iPhone 4S leapt forward to Bluetooth 4.0 in 2011. That's pretty much as good as Bluetooth gets at the moment, supporting both high speed (HS) and low energy (LE) technology.

That's also why there's little chance we'll see near-field communications (NFC) this year. Again. Given the casing for the iPhone 5s won't be changing much, including NFC may not be an option. Beyond that, Apple doesn't typically take a technology and try to find a feature for it. They establish features and then find the best technology for it. NFC is one way to do certain things, but it's not the only way to do everything. Apple seems to be doing some of what people say they want NFC to do using Bluetooth 4.0 LE and ad-hoc Wi-Fi "direct" instead. Time will tell if that's a brilliant or flawed strategy.

iPhone 5c: As in China Mobile?

Once again, where the iPhone 5s looks the same but is all new inside, the iPhone 5c will likely sport a new, colorful, plastic coat but carry the same guts as last year's iPhone 5. That means Bluetooth 4.0, aGPS and GLONASS, 802.11n Wi-Fi on 2.4 and MHz, DC-HSPA+ and LTE. The only wildcard here is China. If the iPhone 5c, in part, is aimed at Chinese markets, and at the massive China Mobile carrier, it might need to support China-specifc implementations like TD-LTE.

Could Apple just pull LTE and offer an HSPA-only model? Even though many markets don't have LTE, so it's of no benefit to include it, the kind of chipsets Apple uses support it anyway. LTE is far more power efficient as well (power up, grab data fast, power down fast), so if a carrier supports it, it makes sense to offer it.

More to come!

We'll be imagining a lot more about the iPhone 5s and iPhone 5c, including designs, screens, cameras, chipsets, finger-print readers and more over the next week, so stay tuned. We'll only know for certain, however, when someone at Apple holds it - or them - up on stage, presumably on September 10.

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.