Gone are the days when AT&T was always the premium operator partner for an iPhone launch. This year, Verizon took star billing at the launch of the iPhone 12 – admittedly the lowest-key iPhone debut ever. Apple continued to split its flagship range into two families – the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max – but the most interesting features were the wide range of spectrum combinations supported, and a Lidar option that provides application developers with some new options for camera and environment mapping capabilities.
Many operators have been talking, for at least a year, about how a 5G iPhone would transform their business cases, but when the day came, there was none of the fevered anticipation and excited discussion of the old days. It may be that the mantra, that an iPhone automatically drives massive uptake of a new service, is no longer true in the 5G era.
Apple introduced the new models with all three US national operators, but featured Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg as a special guest, joining Apple CEO Tim Cook on the stage of the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California. This enabled the operator to crow over the launch of its 5G Nationwide network, which now reaches 200m people in 1,800 cities and towns, providing broad 5G coverage to add to the localized fixed wireless services of the 5G Ultra Wideband service.
Given Verizon’s shortage of midband 5G spectrum – which has driven it to deploy initially in millimeter wave bands, with their limited range – the key enabler of 5G Nationwide is dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). This enables Verizon to use some of its 4G spectrum in 850 MHz for 5G as well, on a flexible basis, and therefore improve its coverage and indoor penetration even before it can acquire new midband spectrum in the C-band auction later this year.
Heidi Hemmer, VP of technology at Verizon, said: “We have built that 5G nationwide network on top of the best 4G network”, though she acknowledged that speeds would be closer to those of 4G, because of the limited capacity in sub-GHz bands, than those on Ultra Wideband or on 5G-dedicated midband spectrum. Devices which support both the mmWave and 4G bands, such as the new iPhone, will pick up Ultra Wideband as its first preference, followed by 5G enabled by DSS, and if neither is available, it will revert to 4G.
Verizon and AT&T immediately announced their deals for the iPhone 12, which start at $699 or $799 depending on the model. New and existing AT&T customers can get the handset for free, but only on an AT&T instalment plan and with an AT&T Unlimited subscription. Verizon also offers a free iPhone 12 when customers switch to its network from a rival service, and existing customers can get the device for $15 a month on a device payment scheme with qualifying unlimited plans. Cable operators Comcast and Charter, whose cellular services are enabled by MVNO deals with Verizon, also had their 5G coverage expanded thanks to DSS, and both will offer the whole iPhone 12 range.
Considering these are the first 5G Apple iPhones, the hype around them was strangely muted, perhaps because of the long wait while the vendor settled its differences with Qualcomm, which has enabled it to develop a wider portfolio of models than it usually does, and to support what it claims is the largest number of frequency band combinations of any handset vendor.
The new models are based on the latest generation of Apple’s system-on-chip (SoC), the A14 Bionic, which comes with six CPU and four GPU cores plus 16 neural processing unit cores. It is also the first mobile SoC to be manufactured on a 5-nanometer process, presumably by TSMC. This allows it to pack in 11.8bn transistors will maintaining the same power consumption as the A13, which had 10bn transistors.
There are also enhanced OLED displays and camera modules in the new smartphones. Two models, the iPhone 12 Pro and Pro Max, have Lidar sensors for autofocusing the camera, mapping the environment, and for use with augmented reality applications.
Apple has partnered with Dolby to support 4K Dolby Vision, pushing the iPhone towards the realm of professional video cameras. It also enhanced the magnetic wireless charging system, MagSafe, to boost performance.