Apple has been a follower, not a leader, when it comes to new radio standards. The first iPhone did not even support 3G. But there are signs this will change in 5G, with the company getting involved in mobile standards to a far greater extent than ever before, and hiring engineers to work on 5G technology.
If Apple launches a 5G iPhone at an early stage, it will have a significant impact on the speed of uptake of the new networks by consumers, and which spectrum bands achieve a large-scale ecosystem.
That has been its influence in previous generations, but it will also be feeling new pressures itself – a greater need to differentiate itself and defend its territory against Samsung, Huawei and a host of Chinese handset makers. It may not be able to afford to be so blasé about being late the party for a new radio, as it has been in the past. After all, arch-rival Samsung will almost certainly be the first vendor with a 5G smartphone, for the Winter Olympics in its home country of South Korea this year, and also has advanced 5G chip technology, including in millimeter wave bands.
Apple is currently advertising for over 100 jobs with 5G relevance, according to its recruitment website, with positions related to millimeter wave antennas, modems, RF software and wireless systems.
The iPhone maker, which in the early days of its handset scarcely bothered to ensure it worked well with cellular networks at all, is moving more deeply into the mobile ecosystem.
In 2016, it joined the operator-driven NGMN organization, which gathers requirements for new technologies and standards. This was unusual, since Apple more commonly pursues its own technology paths and shuns industry alliances.
And last June, Apple asked the FCC for permission to test in 28 GHz and 39 GHz mmWave bands – the main ones which are envisaged for commercial services from Verizon and AT&T from next year.
“Apple Inc. seeks to assess cellular link performance in direct path and multipath environments between base station transmitters and receivers using this spectrum. These assessments will provide engineering data relevant to the operation of devices on wireless carriers’ future 5G networks,” the company said in its filing.
The previous November, the first job adverts were spotted in which Apple was advertising for “multi-gigabit” mmWave chip designers, though there are many issues with implementing these high frequency radios in mobile devices at affordable cost and acceptable battery life. Complex antenna design and beamsteering will be required to address the limited propagation of low power equipment in high frequencies.
Millimeter wave bands are in use already in wireless – for point-to-point ‘wireless fiber’ high speed links including backhaul, and in the 60 GHz band, which supports the WiFi-like WiGig. This has been implemented in chipsets suited to handsets although its main commercial use so far has been for high speed, short range connectivity between devices – to transfer video between TVs and tablets in the home, for instance, or to link PCs to peripherals.
However, Apple could get into the 28 GHz/39 GHz game early by designing a home gateway, Apple TV or iPad which could link to the operators’ fixed wireless services (the tablet could still have a sub-6 GHz radio for mobility purposes). AT&T has tested its DirecTV services in 39 GHz.
Samsung is in pole position to deliver the first mmWave smartphone, but it has suggested this will not happen until mid-2019. The Korean vendor has been a significant investor in mmWave R&D and has been involved both in operators’ network trials and on the device side. Meanwhile, Intel and Qualcomm are promising mmWave chip samples later this year and production chips in 2019.
Verizon is, so far, the major holder of these airwaves, having made several acquisitions to secure licences in both bands. AT&T has 39 GHz licences and T-Mobile gained some 28 GHz spectrum when it bought MetroPCS. Further mmWave airwaves will be auctioned at a future, as-yet undecided date.