Apple’s newest iPhones will have one significant omission when they’re released later this year—no 5G technology.
Next month, rival Samsung plans to release its first 5G smartphone, the Galaxy S10 5G, to the U.S. The device includes a Qualcomm chip that lets the device connect to 5G networks in the U.S. and Korea. Other smartphones, including the upcoming OnePlus 7, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10, and other Android smartphones, are also said to come with a 5G chip.
Most industry watchers agree that 5G is the next big thing. The technology, which wireless carriers including AT&T and Verizon are just starting to roll out, dramatically increases mobile connection speeds compared to current 4G LTE networks. In the U.S., 5G speeds could top 1Gbps per second and are up to 10 to 20 times faster than LTE, depending on network conditions.
However, at this point, barring an unforeseen circumstance, Apple’s 2019 iPhone won’t take advantage of that.
According to several reports last year, Apple was working with chipmaker Intel to test a modem so its iPhones could connect to 5G networks. Those reports said the chip testing suffered setbacks caused by connectivity problems that ultimately forced Apple to remove it from 2019 iPhones.
Intel exited the 5G modem business this week.
Another chip maker, MediaTek, is also building a 5G chip, and Apple said last year that it would consider using it in future iPhones. But again, MediaTek wouldn’t be able to supply 5G modems for 2019 iPhones.
While evaluating alternatives, Apple couldn’t partner with Qualcomm, even though it already has a working 5G chip. The reason: Apple and Qualcomm were in years-long dispute over accusations that Qualcomm charged exorbitant licensing fees on its processors. Qualcomm counter-sued Apple, arguing that Apple owed it billions of dollars for using Qualcomm technology in iPhones.
On Tuesday, however, the companies settled the high-profile case. They also signed a six-year licensing agreement that would allow Apple to use Qualcomm chips in future iPhones.
For 5G-seekers, that would seem like good news—but not for upcoming iPhones this year.
Technalysis Research analyst Bob O’Donnell told CNET that Apple needs to finalize iPhone design and components in the spring to ensure it’s ready for mass production before debuting the phones in the fall. Even if Apple tried to rush 5G to the iPhone, the company would still need to spend months testing the components before the phone would be ready for production, O’Donnell said.
The best case scenario is for Apple and Qualcomm to work on 5G now and put it in next year’s iPhones.
“We believe Apple and Qualcomm needed to start working together by April for Apple to launch 5G enabled smartphones for its September 2020 iPhone launch timeframe,” Canaccord Genuity analyst Mike Walkley said in a note to investors this week.
Apple did not respond to a Fortune request for comment on its 5G plans. The company’s executives have also been silent on any possible 5G plans for the future. Apple generally only speaks about hardware features when it unveils new products.
Apple’s competitors are undoubtedly paying close attention to the omission. When the inevitable new iPhone ships this fall, several Android smartphones will be capable of connecting to 5G networks. To some, Apple’s iPhone could look obsolete in comparison.
Then again, it may not.
Currently, Verizon’s 5G service is only available in Chicago and Minneapolis. AT&T and Verizon have said they would add dozens of new 5G markets this year, but many other cities will still just have legacy 4G LTE. For most of the country, a 5G phone would be of no benefit, since there wouldn’t be a 5G network to connect to.
So perhaps it’s no big deal that 2019 iPhones are unlikely to be 5G compatible. As crucial as the technology will be in the future to lift mobile connection speeds and improve communication between devices, it’s still far from ubiquitous.
When 5G is widely available—2020, at the earliest—Apple may have an iPhone ready.