Industry Voices — Lowenstein: A mmWave iPhone is not a sure bet

Mark Lowenstein

Nobody expected a 5G iPhone in 2019. Everybody expects a 5G iPhone in 2020. I’m confident Apple will announce some 5G iteration of iPhone at its usual September event in 2020. But I think there’s a reasonable chance that Apple will decide to not release a version that supports mmWave bands, at least in 2020. I’m not privy to any unique information on this front, although I’ve had enough informal conversations with ecosystem players to believe I’m not alone in my hypothesis.

There are a few reasons Apple might choose to hold off on a mmWave version of iPhone in 2020. First, is that there are relatively few mmWave deployments today and not that many in the immediate pipeline. In the United States, the major mmWave deployments are being undertaken by Verizon Wireless and AT&T, with a more limited deployment by T-Mobile. There are several other countries that have committed to mmWave, but only a handful are actively building networks. So one key question is, whether there’s enough commitment on a global basis to justify Apple’s making the investment in an iPhone that includes the mmWave bands (in addition to other 5G and LTE bands).

Some will push back on this argument by saying that Apple supports some bands that are unique to a particular country or operator, especially if a large population is potentially served. This is certainly true in the United States, for example, with support of the CBRS, FirstNet, and 600 MHz bands. There are numerous, similar examples in other parts of the world. However, support for mmWave is a bit of a different beast as I’ll elaborate below. So, without a critical mass, Apple might choose to not offer a version that supports mmWave or wait another year or two to determine how many networks outside the U.S. get built (and even how broadly they get built in the U.S.).

RELATED: New iPhones support CBRS Band 48

Second, we have to recognize that mmWave is not just ‘another band’. Given the high frequency nature of mmWave, designing a phone that works in those bands requires some unique design elements and some very complex engineering. We’re certainly seeing this in some of the first generation mmWave smartphones that are available. At this point, it’s still pioneering work. Things might get even more complex when phones released in 2020 or later support 5G in other bands. Maintaining ‘5G’ when moving between mmWave and other bands might be tricky in the early days.

In addition to some of the predicted issues around very limited and inconsistent coverage (especially inside buildings), there have been some other challenges that are a bit more unsettling, such as excessive heat and fast battery drain. There’s still a lot of research being collected around antenna placement on the phone and even how to optimally hold the phone. With so many open issues in this early stage of mmWave, one can envision Apple taking a pass until they’re confident that their version of a phone supporting mmWave meets a certain minimum threshold from a quality of experience perspective.

Third, the jury is still out on mmWave and will be for at least the next couple of years. Clearly, operators such as Verizon and AT&T are continuing to build out mmWave coverage. But much of the rest of the world has not made the same commitment. Instead, momentum has shifted to the mid-band for 5G: anywhere from 2.5 GHz to 6 GHz, with some of the lower bands being considered as ‘coverage’ 5G. OEMs have their hands full determining which of these middle bands to support, and when. It is not an inexpensive or trivial decision. One has to game auction timeframes, operator deployment schedules, and so on. It’s also clear that a handful of countries exert an outsize influence here: United States, China, Japan, S. Korea, U.K., France, and Germany. Similarly, a list of fewer than 10 MNOs are similarly influential. But Apple might choose to wait – to see how broadly mmWave is built, for example if it is mainly used as for select urban hotspots or for case specific services. And, in what would be true to Apple form, the company could let competing OEMs and their MNO partners iron out the kinks with the early mmWave experience.

Investors reading this piece might believe that if Apple decides to not release a mmWave iPhone in 2020, Verizon is particularly vulnerable. Verizon has made a greater commitment to mmWave as part of its strategy and has fewer near-term go-to-market options for 5G if mmWave ends up becoming used for case-specific services, such as for fixed wireless access (FWA). No doubt, Verizon would be impacted the most by this, but the impact could be short-lived. It does appear that the FCC is moving fairly quickly (for the FCC) on the 3.7-4.2 bands, and unlike other recent spectrum auctions (such as 600 MHz), Verizon is not likely to sit this one out. Second, dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) will over time make some of these spectrum decisions less of a zero-sum-game.

And there is precedent here. Remember that the Verizon version of the 4G LTE iPhone was launched a good couple of years after the first LTE iPhones. Neither was Apple first to the party with VoLTE or Wi-Fi Calling. Conversely, in a bit of a surprise (and some irony with regards to mmWave), the iPhone 11 does support Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), which is in its early stages of deployment.

Apple’s holding off on a mmWave phone will impact the adoption of 5G, especially in the United States. Apple’s iPhone share in the U.S. market is about 40%, which is outsized compared to much of the rest of the world. So the result might be some OEM share shifts and advantage to certain operators. But even if Apple chooses not to make an iPhone supporting the mmWave bands in 2020, the company will have a version supporting other bands that operators are planning to be used for 5G. In fact, many of those bands are supported on current iPhones.

With the anticipation that Apple will release some version of a 5G iPhone in the fall of 2020, there will be a lot of speculation over the coming year about what type of iPhone it will be. I think it’s reasonable to consider the possibility that Apple will hold off on an iPhone that supports mmWave, at least in 2020.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of the editorial board.