Coverage is patchy, not all 5G networks are the same, and for most Apple customers in most places and on most networks, the speed increase you’ll get using it will be more like fast LTE than anything more profound.
So, what’s next for the much-ballyhooed 5G now that Apple’s introduced the iPhone 12?
When 5G isn’t really 5G
Most of the world’s networks now offer some form of 5G, including Verizon in the U.S. and EE in the UK. The problem is that deployment isn’t universal and in many cases, you’ll only find a 5G network in urban areas — though deployment will now accelerate.
There’s some consumer confusion around 5G, in part generated by poor marketing decisions on behalf of some carriers. At present almost half of iPhone users think they already have 5G. Compounding this is the fact that three basic breeds of 5G exist, each with different speed potentials:
- Low-band 5G is more widely available, but delivers speeds about as good as 4G LTE.
- Mid-band 5G delivers better speed than Low-band, and supports much better coverage than mmWave, particularly indoors.
- mmWave 5G is the highest-frequency brand of 5G. This can deliver speeds topping 1Gbps, but it works only at limited range and doesn’t respond well indoors.
Apple’s devices support all of these three broad 5G families, though mmWave is harder to deploy and unlikely to see a great deal of presence outside major conurbations.
T-Mobile offers mid-band already. AT&T and Verizon are expected to supply it just as soon as they manage to buy additional bandwidth from the FTC.
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg tried to get everyone interested in the standard during the Apple keynote, when he told us his company is introducing mmWave support in 50 U.S. cities.
While carriers are expected to spend $275 billion on 5G networks, the fastest mmWave breed of 5G isn’t really available outside the U.S., meaning most Apple customers will be consigned to slower versions of the standard.
Regardless of all these caveats, tens of millions of Apple customers will now purchase an iPhone 12 and will expect to enjoy those fast 5G experiences — and will seek out new services designed to exploit that mobile bandwidth. The problem? Expectations versus reality.
The services aren’t quite there yet
Vestberg discussed Verizon’s work with the NFL on innovative new in-game experiences during Apple’s keynote, during which we also saw a demo of a game called League of Legends: Wild Rift.
But there was a distinct lack of any other 5G usage cases during the show. We should have expected this, as services designed to exploit 5G don’t really exist yet.
This is work-in-progress stuff, and it seemed a lost opportunity that Apple hasn’t (yet) developed some kind of proprietary service to exploit the tech (though it is useful the company is offering new iPhone purchasers three free months of access to Apple Arcade).
To be fair to all parties, despite 5G hovering around the tech conversation water coolers for the last couple of years, it’s still really just the beginning of its global deployment (bar, possibly, in China).
Apple CEO Tim Cook said as much: “Today is the beginning of a new era for iPhone,” he said. “This is a huge moment for all of us.”
What difference do different forms of 5G make?
You can anticipate a deluge of 5G performance data to emerge once Apple begins to ship the iPhone 12.
The first set of tests recently disclosed by SpeedSmart confirm that the level of performance you can expect varies. They confirm mmWave 5G delivers (much) better connectivity than sub-6GHz 5G, though the latter is still faster than 4G.
“The sweet spot for most will be mid-band 5G,” SpeedSmart says. “As you can see T-Mobile with download speeds in excess of 400 Mbps using mid-band 5G is very impressive, most people should end up with results like this if they are in an area with mid-band 5G deployed, otherwise most will notice very little to no difference when going to 5G.”
What this means is that over the next few months, we’ll see 5G customers (and not just Apple’s 5G customers) experiencing nothing like the high 5G speeds they might expect, even as carriers work to maintain service quality on the services they do provide.
It’s going to take years until fully 5G networks are available, and carriers really need to refine their messaging if they want to make sure customers they bring in with promises of 5G broadband don’t end up disappointed by the experience.
The introduction of compelling services and 5G content may help soften this and mitigate customer churn if the experiences don’t meet expectations.
Looking forward Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives thinks Appe’s move to 5G is a once in a decade thing. “In terms of 5G and the specs here I think it’s enough to go forward. You could have some fence-sitters who will wait until 5G is more widely available,” he said. “To me it’s the most important product cycle since iPhone 6. It will put more gasoline into the current iPhone supercycle.”
So, what’s the outcome?
I think Apple and its carrier partners would do well to ensure they don’t encourage customers to expect better 5G experiences than they are likely to get at this stage of market development. I do note that carriers are expected to try to reflect this in price, but we’ll wait and see the extent to which they manage to achieve that consumer pricing sweet spot.
However, for many of us (particularly those trying to use our phones as main internet connections while working from home), even low-band 5G may be a blessing assuming it can reliably provide slightly faster LTE that will scale to super-fast mobile broadband once we all get to leave our homes again.
I continue to believe there’s a real opportunity in the development of new mobile experiences designed to turn 5G from a standard people are kind of curious about into something they can’t imagine life without.
The next couple of years will see all players in the space – now including Apple – attempt to do just that. They’ll probably succeed.
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