Buy­ing a 5G iPhone doesn’t mean 5G ser­vice

Highly touted tech­nol­ogy comes in three fla­vors

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY | TECH - Rob Pe­go­raro

The one thing to know about 5G on the iPhone 12 lineup Ap­ple in­tro­duced Tues­day is that there won’t be any one “5G” on board them.

In­stead, these smart­phones – from the $699-andup iPhone 12 mini to the $1,099-plus iPhone 12 Pro Max – can tune into three kinds of 5G, each with a dif­fer­ent mix of speed and range.

That com­pre­hen­sive sup­port sets Ap­ple apart from other smart­phone ven­dors.

“I was im­pressed that they’re be­ing con­sis­tent in their roll­out with 5G,” said an­a­lyst Mark Vena with Moor In­sights & Strat­egy.

Your car­rier, how­ever, may not be as flex­i­ble.

Which 5G it sup­ports – and where – will de­cide whether this next gen­er­a­tion of wire­less broad­band de­liv­ers mean­ing­ful ben­e­fits to a new iPhone.

Ap­ple and Ver­i­zon, the only car­rier among the big three to get a spot on stage during Tues­day’s on­line event, spent much of that time tout­ing mil­lime­ter-wave 5G, named for the high fre­quen­cies it uses. But its ex­ceed­ingly fast speeds – 1 gi­ga­bit per sec­ond and up, ri­val­ing fiber-op­tic broad­band – cover ex­ceed­ingly short ranges.

“Fifty-five cities with mmwave sounds im­pres­sive, but cov­er­age is mere city blocks,” cau­tioned Lynette Luna, an an­a­lyst with Glob­alData, in an email.

“It’s un­likely that the vast, vast, vast ma­jor­ity of Ver­i­zon sub­scribers will ever see mil­lime­ter wave any­where near where they live or work,” con­curred Avi Green­gart, founder and lead an­a­lyst with Tech­spo­nen­tial.

AT&T and T-Mo­bile also of­fer mil­lime­ter-wave 5G ser­vice, but in even fewer cities than the 55 Ver­i­zon now touts.

Ver­i­zon’s an­nounce­ment to­day of a na­tion­wide 5G net­work shar­ing the low-band fre­quen­cies of its 4G LTE ser­vice – the same ap­proach AT&T and TMo­bile have taken to sell na­tion­wide 5G – is also un­likely to up­end any­body’s wire­less ex­pe­ri­ence.

“The phones will be roughly as fast as 4G,” pre­dicted an­a­lyst Roger Ent­ner of Re­con An­a­lyt­ics.

The third kind of 5G – often de­scribed as the mid­dle layer in a cake – re­lies on mid­band fre­quen­cies, be­tween the mass­mar­ket dessert that is low­band 5G and the ex­quis­ite con­fec­tionery that is mil­lime­ter­wave 5G. That layer, with a mix of sig­nif­i­cantly faster speeds and de­cent cov­er­age, is only on the menu at T-Mo­bile.

“The iPhones will work the best on T-Mo­bile,” said Ent­ner.

Em­pha­sis on “will”: That car­rier is still build­ing out mid­band 5G with spec­trum it got from buy­ing Sprint, an ef­fort that it said two weeks ago would reach “thou­sands of cities and towns” by year-end.

AT&T and Ver­i­zon have been buy­ing up their own mid­band 5G spec­trum so they can match their com­peti­tor. Ap­ple’s hard­ware spec­i­fi­ca­tions for the new iPhones in­clude many of these fre­quen­cies, but that doesn’t en­sure that they will get com­mer­cial ser­vice on those bands.

“These phones will need to be cer­ti­fied to work on those fre­quen­cies,” Green­gart warned. His ad­vice: Ex­pect a new iPhone 12 to sup­port what­ever 5G its car­rier sells to­day, but not nec­es­sar­ily what they might light up in 2022 or 2023.

If this bat­tle of the 5G bands doesn’t al­ready sound like enough cus­tomer ca­coph­ony, con­sider an­other data point show­ing how much the wire­less in­dus­try has left shop­pers puz­zled: A sur­vey re­leased last week by the Dulles, Vir­ginia, net­work-anal­y­sis firm Global Wire­less Solutions found that 49% of iPhone users across the ma­jor car­ri­ers thought they al­ready had 5G phones.

Luna, with Glob­alData, ad­vised not get­ting hung up about 5G at all.

“I’m think­ing that at this point 5G is not the main rea­son for buy­ing a new smart­phone,” she wrote. “There’s lots of nice cam­era features com­ing, which is al­ways a draw.”


Ap­ple just an­nounced its new iPhone 12 line with 5G

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