If only one iPhone 12 model has mmWave 5G, that’s fine — until 2022

I would love to tell you that buying a 5G smartphone will be simple this holiday season — that your late 2020 investment will have everything you need for the typical phone’s three-year lifespan. But as the iPhone 12 family launch is only a month away, it’s becoming clear that Apple will create two tiers of 5G performance, and the line between them might not be drawn where most people expected it.

Tier 1 appears to be the so-called “sub-6GHz” flavor of 5G, a catchall name for low band (600Mhz to 1GHz) and mid band (1GHz to 6GHz) frequencies. Realistically, that’s the only type of 5G available in roughly 99% of the United States today, and it’s also the dominant 5G version across Asia, Australia, and Europe right now.

Tier 2 will combine sub-6GHz with millimeter wave support, which means users will get the full “layer cake” of 5G — low, mid, and high frequency bands. Alternately referred to as 5G+, 5G Ultra Wideband, or Full 5G, millimeter wave can deliver much faster speeds and some of the “transformative” 5G experiences carriers have been hyping for years, but the small cell towers needed to deliver service have proved challenging to roll out. Consequently, the vast majority of phone buyers would need to go out of their way to find millimeter wave 5G service today.

Rumors have circulated for months that Apple will split the iPhone 12 into two sets of two phones — small (5.4-inch) and mid-sized (6.1-inch) iPhone 12 models, plus mid-sized (6.1-inch) and large (6.7-inch) iPhone 12 Pro models. It would be easy for Apple to neatly segregate 5G’s two tiers by the Pro and non-Pro models, such that the non-Pro models would have low and mid band support, while the Pro phones would have the full layer cake. Pay $999 or more and your phone is more capable and future-proofed; pay less and you’re stuck in the not-as-fast lane.

According to a new Fast Company report, that might not be the case. Their claim is that Apple couldn’t squeeze the millimeter wave 5G hardware into the 6.1-inch iPhone 12 Pro, and will make it exclusive to the 6.7-inch iPhone 12 Pro Max — and then only in the U.S., South Korean, and Japanese versions of that phone. I’m a little skeptical because Samsung and others have shoehorned millimeter wave antennas into phones with dimensions similar to the iPhone 12 Pro, and since Apple has had (much) longer to work on its first 5G phones, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Note that a similar “Max-only” claim has been made about a rear-facing lidar camera that was once expected to be inside both iPhone 12 Pro phones, but recently has been suggested as exclusive to the largest phone. Reliable sources continue to disagree on the lidar point, and may well go back and forth on the millimeter wave hardware topic until the phones are officially announced next month.

As much as I would prefer to buy a phone that includes all the potential 5G connectivity I (and my lucky hand-me-down recipient) may need over the next few years, the reality is that millimeter wave 5G doesn’t have the penetration to matter in the United States right now, and probably won’t in 2021, either. Mid band 5G is going to deliver the best balance of speed and range for the next year or two, just as it has across other countries during 2020, while low band 5G will be there as a lower-speed coverage blanket — at least, for certain carriers.

The balance could change in 2022, but for the time being, I will be happy to own a phone that delivers on the 300Mbps averages and 1Gbps peaks T-Mobile is promising for its mid band 5G service this year. I saw similar (if not quite so fast) results on Sprint’s initial mid band 5G network last year, and the experience was seriously impressive. Even without millimeter wave, a properly designed mid band 5G network will bring the U.S. much closer to competing with other countries’ 5G speeds, rather than our current last place in overall performance. While T-Mobile seems to have all its ducks in a row for that to happen, we’ll have to see whether Verizon and AT&T can step up their 5G network performance to compete.

If the report is wrong and millimeter wave hardware is available in both versions of the iPhone 12 Pro, that’s great for everyone. Assuming the Pro models’ prices stay the same this year, users should certainly expect “full 5G” support from both of them, even if the peak capabilities aren’t going to see much use for a while. In either case, it’s going to be really interesting to see how Apple markets (or attempts to dodge) the 5G compatibility distinctions during its launch event, as they’re important enough to explain to consumers, regardless of which phones include the most advanced hardware and which do not.

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