5G iPhone now virtually certain in 2020 [Opinion]

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5G iPhone
While a 5G iPhone won’t come as soon as we might hope, the wait won‘t be as long as we might fear.
Photo: Ed Hardy/Cult of Mac

Most people probably shrugged their shoulders at the news Apple and Qualcomm ended their long, bitter legal war. But this is actually going to benefit every iPhone user.

It means that Apple is almost guaranteed to introduce a handset with super-fast 5G next year. Before now, there was some question about whether that was possible.

Apple’s 5G troubles are over

Qualcomm has a 5G modem which is being used in Android-based devices set for release soon. But with this company and Apple at legal loggerheads, that chip couldn’t go into future iPhone models.

The best alternative is from Intel, but this company is still developing its 5G modem, with the first samples not scheduled to go out until this fall. If this process runs into delays, the release of a post-4G iPhone might be pushed back… but only if Intel is the sole provider of this component.

Update: Intel just announced it’s dropping its project to develop a 5G modem. The timing — just after Apple and Qualcomm settled their differences — can’t be a coincidence.

Apple + Qualcomm = ❤️

For years, Qualcomm modems were part of iPhone as a matter of course, along with Intel’s offerings. Then the lawsuits started and Apple switched to only sourcing these critical components from Intel.

Cooperation fell apart over patent license fees, but the two have buried the hatchet. Apple has licensed all Qualcomm’s patents for at least the next 6 years.

The iPhone maker was doing fairly well in the various courtroom skirmishes, and likely could have carried on the fight for years. The fact that the war ended abruptly is almost certainly because Apple decided it needed Qualcomm’s 5G modems, and it needed them now.

5G iPhone in 2020 not 2019

The end of the war with Qualcomm means the Apple can introduce a 5G iPhone as soon as it wants to. In theory, this could be this fall, but that would probably be rushing things too much.

For one thing, Apple surely already has the next iPhone designed around a 4G modem. Switching to a 5G one is more involved that popping in a different chip. Consider that Samsung is producing a special 5G version of the Galaxy S10 because it requires a bulky antenna to access the mmWave frequencies many carriers are using for 5G.

An insider report from Nikkei Asian Review confirms this. It claims a “source with direct knowledge” said “It is too late for Apple to use Qualcomm’s chips this year, but for 2020 it will purchase modem chips, including 5G modem chips, from the chipmaker for iPhones after finalizing the deal.”

There’s time to get the design right because 5G is still barely getting off the ground. AT&T is offering this service in a few scattered areas. Verizon just recently launched its version in parts of only two cities. Sprint will get started in May, while T-Mobile won’t get serious about 5G until the second half of this year.

It’s likely 5G access won’t be broadly available until 2022. The models that support it debuting this year are more about securing bragging rights that anything practical. And that’s not how Apple does things.

By 2020, Qualcomm will have introduced the Snapdragon X55 5G modem. This offers up to 7 gigabits per second download speed. And it comes with a mmWave antenna that’s smaller than the current one.

All this adds up to a 5G iPhone next year. Which is actually better than a poor version rushed out this fall, and vastly better than all of us having to wait until 2021 because Intel can’t get its act together.

And this was brought about by the end of multiple Apple v. Qualcomm lawsuits. Raise a glass to the end of their war, as one of the winners is you.