Apple prepares to launch 5G iPhones into unready US market

Apple Inc. is set to embrace 5G as one of its most significant additions to this year’s iPhones, but the technology is still not ready for the masses in the United States.

That’s because the country’s three largest wireless carriers, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc., and T-Mobile US Inc., have yet to roll out 5G in a way that provides consistently higher data speeds or widespread coverage. If these companies do not dramatically upgrade their networks soon, many consumers buying the latest iPhones could find this year’s premier feature underwhelming.

The addition of 5G will be a key talking point at Tuesday’s iPhone event, underscored by Apple’s tagline: “Hi, Speed.” The new wireless technology lets phones download data from a cellular connection many times faster than 4G LTE, the current standard — but 5G coverage remains scarce in many advanced markets.

Phone makers, including Samsung Electronics Co., started rolling out phones with 5G last year. Google announced its own 5G phones last month.

Investors and analysts are bullish about the devices, partly because 5G networks are more built out in China. This year’s crop of new iPhones also marks the first major redesign in three years, which could spur more upgrades.

In the first quarter this year, phone makers led by Samsung shipped 3.4 million 5G phones in the United States, a fraction of the overall market, Strategy Analytics data show. In a few other countries, 5G has performed far better. A third of phone sales in China during the second quarter were 5G handsets, according to Counterpoint Research.

Tests by IHS Markit’s RootMetrics across 125 US areas in the first half of 2020 showed that 5G speeds on AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are only slightly faster than 4G LTE. AT&T and T-Mobile, which is buying Sprint, have both claimed their 5G networks are available “nationwide,” a metric that means they can reach 200 million people, but coverage is still often sporadic and data speeds are not consistently faster.

Verizon has a much quicker 5G network that uses ultra wideband, or millimeter wave technology, but that is only live in select parts of 36 cities. The technology also sometimes suffers from rapid drops in signal.

The launch of 5G iPhones is likely to be used as the staging post for a fresh wave of expansions and announcements from network operators. After Apple rolled out its first 4G LTE iPhone in 2012, major US carriers built out their networks. Verizon is expected to announce a form of nationwide 5G availability as early as next week, according to people familiar with the matter. T-Mobile has also boasted of speed increases recently.

Tuesday’s event will usher in the widest array of new iPhones that Apple has announced at one time. There will be four new models with faster A14 processors, new designs with squared off versus rounded sides and upgraded cameras, according to people familiar with the plans.

The new models are being announced about a month later than usual because of supply constraints and testing complications created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All of the new phones will have flat sides to make the design more consistent with the latest iPads. The lower-end models will continue to use aluminum edges, while the higher-end phones will still use stainless steel. The pricier Pro models will also have a Lidar scanner on the back for augmented reality applications and will have three cameras instead of two.

Also for the first time, all four phones will use OLED screens. That’s a shift from last year when the entry-level iPhone 11 used a cheaper LCD screen. In a move that will help offset the higher costs of new screens and 5G chipsets, while also benefiting the environment, Apple will stop including a wall charger and earphones in the box with the new iPhones. A charging cable will still be included.

The company is also preparing to announce its first Apple-branded over-ear headphones and a smaller version of the HomePod speaker as early as this month. The first Mac laptop with Apple’s own processor, among other products, will emerge at another launch in November.

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