Qualcomm 5GSource: Qualcomm

5G. It's U.S. rollout has been an absolute mess. But not content with filling the wireless market with confusion over sub-6 vs millimeter wave (mmWave), 5G is also leading to confusing rumors about the next couple of iPhones.

According to a new DigiTimes report, Apple is planning on supporting both sub-6 and mmWave 5G technologies across its 2020 iPhone 12 lineup. This wouldn't be that surprising. But the report goes further, claiming that Apple's 2021 iPhone will actually have specific models that only support sub-6 5G networks, and others that only support mmWave.

I understand the basic idea behind this. Countries worldwide are rolling out their 5G implementations now, many of them favoring the slower sub-6 network. What it lacks in speed, it makes up for in much greater range than mmWave. Meanwhile, only a handful of countries are seeing the rollout of the 1Gbps-capable mmWave networks, which have an extremely short range and, thus, limited utility, especially for phones.

A rumor that's been around for a little while now is that the iPhone 12 lineup would see a bit of a 5G split: The lower-end iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Max would support sub-6 5G, while the more premium iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max would support both sub-6 and mmWave. The thing that makes the kind of sense that doesn't here is the notion that Apple would release an iPhone that supports mmWave, but not sub-6.

Because when I say mmWave is extremely short range, I mean it, almost to the point of it being unusable in any practical sense. The signal from an mmWave tower can be interrupted by the most trivial things, and you can lose signal just by moving a couple of feet. It might be different in urban areas once mmWave is fully deployed, but we're not going to get there by 2021.

Sub-6, on the other hand, can't get near the speeds of mmWave, but its range far exceeds that of the faster network, while still being generally faster than current LTE networks. And while I can imagine Apple releasing a 5G iPhone without mmWave, I can't imagine it releasing one without sub-6. Because if it releases such a phone, for all practical purposes, what Apple would have done is make an LTE iPhone with a high-speed connection in minimal instances.

I share Rene Ritchie's opinion that mmWave may never be a viable consumer technology due to its limited range and unreliability. I'd love to be wrong. But sub-6 is the more probable standard to define 5G, and building a 5G phone without it will be like building a phone without 5G at all.

It's easy for me to imagine iPhones that leave out mmWave (I think that might happen this year, in fact). But sub-6 might well be table stakes in the 5G future, and soon, no manufacturer, not even Apple, will be able to build a flagship phone without it.