- Apple will release three 5G-ready iPhones in the second half of 2020
- These will be based on Qualcomm modems
- Apple aims to produce its own 5G modems by 2021
As 5G spreads throughout the Android ecosystem (including certain editions of the Samsung Galaxy S10), you may be wondering when Apple will catch up and launch a 5G iPhone. Well, we're pretty sure that 2020 will be the year: respected analyst Ming-Chi Kuo confidently expects all three late-2020 iPhones to support 5G... and has insisted that these will include models capable of mmWave 5G.
In this article we round up the leaks, rumours and patent activity that point to an imminent 5G iPhone launch, predicting the device's release date and features. We also offer information about the progress of 5G adoption in the market at large, and the benefits that 5G will offer to iPhone users when Apple gets on board.
Does the iPhone have 5G?
No it doesn't - not yet. The iPhone 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max are the most recent models and they do not support 5G. Nor do any previously released iPhones.
We think that will all change in the next year.
iPhone 5G release date
We strongly expect three (or more!) 5G-ready iPhones to be released in autumn 2020.
In 2018 it was reported that Apple was working on a 5G modem with Intel, but apparently insoluble connectivity problems cropped up in testing. Neither Intel (which has since quit the 5G arena, and sold the majority of its smartphone modem business to Apple) or later supplier candidate MediaTek were able to supply 5G components for an autumn 2019 launch.
We now expect a 2020 launch, but until Apple reached an agreement with Qualcomm, it was thought that Apple's iPhone 5G might not arrive until 2021. UBS analyst Timothy Arcuri had told 9to5Mac at the beginning of April 2019 that Apple was targeting 2021 for the 5G iPhone release, and described even that as a "technical hurdle".
In an April 2019 research note, reported by MacRumors, Kuo wrote: "Apple and Qualcomm's end of patent dispute and entrance into a six-year licensing deal implies new 2H20 iPhone models will support 5G." He reiterated this prediction in June 2019, writing: "The [new 2H20] 6.7in and 5.4in OLED iPhone models will likely support 5G."
And on 28 July 2019 Kuo responded to the Intel modems acquisitions with a further research note in which he predicted that all three late-2020 iPhone models would support 5G.
"We now believe that all three new 2H20 iPhone models will support 5G for the following reasons. (1) Apple has more resource for developing the 5G iPhone after the acquisition of Intel baseband business. (2) We expect that the prices of 5G Android smartphones will decline to $249-349 in 2H20... iPhone models which will be sold at higher prices have to support 5G for winning more subsidies from mobile operators and consumers' purchase intention. (3) Boosting 5G developments could benefit Apple's AR ecosystem."
For more details of the next major iPhone update, read our guide to the iPhone 12's release date, price & specs.
The version everyone is hoping for is known as millimetre wave, or mmWave; most existing offerings are based instead on mid-band or sub-6GHz 5G, which is faster than 4G but slower than mmWave. Opinions differ over whether or not Apple will roll out mmWave support right away.
Susquehanna analyst Mehdi Hosseini believes Apple will go for a staggered approach, giving us a mid-band 5G iPhone in September 2020 and releasing an enhanced mmWave version three or four months later. Ming-Chi Kuo, on the other hand, thinks there will be mmWave iPhones available at the initial launch in September.
We find Hosseini's rationale confusing, since it will obviously encourage buyers to put off an upgrade and leave the iPhone 12 launch as a damp squib (if the plan is revealed publicly) or massively annoy those who buy the iPhone 12 when it comes out (if it isn't). Either way this seems like a recipe for discontent.
We're therefore more convinced by the idea that Apple will release a mmWave iPhone in September 2020. At least that way it can bring something new and impressive to the 5G party that it's late for.
Why is the 5G iPhone delayed?
There are a few reasons why Apple's 5G iPhone has been delayed.
One is its disagreement with Qualcomm (which we'll discuss next), the other reason was that due to its beef with Qualcomm the company was having to rely on Intel (and as we'll discuss later on, Intel was struggling a bit with development of its 5G modem).
With Qualcomm out and Intel delayed, Apple also has an internal team working on developing 5G modems. A report by The Information has predicted that these won't be ready until 2025, but Apple's acquisition of Intel's modem business is likely to bring that date closer.
Apple vs Qualcomm
The Apple vs Qualcomm case was the main hurdle to Apple's plans for 5G handsets.
For a number of years Apple had been in partnership with Qualcomm, which was sole provider of wireless chips for the iPhone prior to 2016, and from 2016-2017 provided chips for Apple alongside Intel.
We won't go into too much detail about the spat between Apple and Qualcomm other than to say that when Apple stopped using Qualcomm chips in the iPhone in 2018, the relationship between the two companies broke down.
In a nutshell, both companies accused the other of infringing on their patents, Qualcomm claimed Apple owed it royalties for using its tech, and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was also suing Qualcomm for anticompetitive practices. And there was a whole lot more to the battle than that.
Qualcomm apparently refused to supply Apple with chips while the legal battles continued. Since Qualcomm had already unveiled what it refers to as "the world's first 5G modem", the Snapdragon X50 - which is already being used in other smartphones - it looked like the iPhone would be left behind.
Fortunately, the companies have since come to an agreement. In a press release (which you can read here) the companies announced they have agreed to drop all litigation.
As part of the settlement deal Apple has accepted a six-year licensing deal with Qualcomm. So we should be seeing Qualcomm modems in new iPhones after all.
Intel and 5G
Intel has been the other factor delaying the 5G chip. With Qualcomm temporarily out of the picture, Apple was reliant on Intel - but Intel was struggling with development of a 5G modem.
According to Fast Company sources in November 2018, the Intel 5G modem chip that Apple was working with was suffering from "heat dissipation issues". Various Intel spokespersons confirmed the delays, and reports discussed the problems Intel was facing. Following the Apple and Qualcomm agreement, Intel confirmed that it would exit the 5G baseband chip business.
And on 25 July Apple announced it would acquire "the majority of Intel's smartphone modem business" in the fourth quarter of 2019 (subject to regulatory approvals) in a transaction value at $1bn. This brings the prospect of Apple making its own 5G modems closer, as we'll discuss in the next section.
Apple's own 5G modem plans
Despite coming to an agreement with Qualcomm, Apple would prefer to be in control of its own destiny - a principle that has become known as the Cook Doctrine since the firm's CEO argued in 2009 Apple "needs to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make".
To that end, Apple has a team working on 5G modems, led by senior hardware VP Johny Srouji, according to a Reuters report from February 2019. In the same month, the company hired Intel's 5G modem lead Umashankar Thyagarajan, according to a Telegraph report. Thyagarajan ran Intel's project to build cellular modems for Apple.
Now that it's signed a deal to acquire Intel's smartphone modems staff, tech and equipment, Apple is in a great position to take control of its own 5G destiny - but there remain a lot of steps before it gets to that point, and we strongly expect Qualcomm to provide the modems for the first generation of 5G iPhones in 2020.
Beyond that, however, things will start to change. Quoting "a person familiar with the matter", Reuters reports that Apple "wants to have an internally developed 5G modem technology ready for use in some of its products by 2021".
There will be a transition period as Apple works to ensure worldwide compatibility, however, and Qualcomm modems may remain in use for some time: "There's a fierce desire [at Apple] to have independence, but they also realise it has to be done responsibly," said Reuters' source.
What is 5G?
5G is the successor to 4G. It should be able to offer download speeds of around 1Gb/s (gigabits per second) - maybe even 10Gb/s. That would make it possible to download an HD movie in just 10 seconds rather than around 10 minutes, as is currently the case.
It should also pave the way for new technological advancements such as driverless cars, as it will offer lower latency. That should also be good for online gaming, delivery drones and other things that require an always-on connection.
You can also expect to see more in the way of VR and AR applications and IoT gadgets will become more common as more devices will be connected to the internet.
5G will use higher radio frequencies, which are less cluttered and can carry information faster. However, they don't carry the information as far, so more antennas are needed.
When will we get 5G?
Whether you can access a 5G network depends on where you're based. In these early days, coverage tends to be restricted to major cities.
We've now seen the launch of 5G coverage in the UK by two of the major networks: EE was first, on 30 May 2019, and was followed on 3 July by Vodafone. O2 is also running 5G trials, but it - and other networks - may not offer 5G until 2020. Expect coverage to be limited at first - you might have to wait until 2022 before 5G reaches you if you aren't in a major city.
In the US, 5G rollout has begun for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile.
As for the smartphones, a number of 5G-ready devices have now launched in the UK, including the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G from EE, the Mi Mix 3 5G (via Vodafone), the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, the LG V50 ThinQ 5G and Oppo's Reno 5G. Our colleagues on Tech Advisor have a guide to the best 5G phones currently available.
What will the iPhone 5G look like?
After a relatively conservative design update in autumn 2019, we expect larger changes in the iPhone line-up in 2020, along with the addition of 5G connectivity. The notch is likely to disappear, while the three-lens camera on the 2019 iPhone may be increased to four in 2020.
Describe your ultimate iPhone - design, specs, features pic.twitter.com/HUa2zVRvPO— Ben Geskin (@BenGeskin) June 23, 2019
Well, that's it for 5G iPhone rumours - for now. We'll update this article whenever new evidence emerges.