Photo: Apple

As expected, Apple’s 2019 iPhone lineup does not include 5G technology, leaving the iPhone 11 Pro and iPhone 11 without the next-generation leap in mobile data speeds we’ve seen on recent smartphones from Samsung, LG, and OnePlus.

But Apple is wise in waiting another year before building 5G into the iPhone, and it’s got nothing to do with safety. 5G networks still feel like they’re very much in a preliminary stage, and only now are carriers starting to build any real momentum by bringing 5G to more cities across the US. But there are other obstacles and snags that led to Apple holding off another year — hopefully just one more — before integrating 5G into the iPhone.

Good luck finding 5G

Right now, the fledgling 5G networks of the major US carriers are in no shape to provide a consistent, satisfactory experience for consumers. Coverage is wildly spotty for Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. These companies are using millimeter-wave technology, which offers blistering-fast download speeds but poses significant challenges when it comes to blanketing cities with 5G signal. Millimeter-wave can’t match the range of LTE towers, requiring carriers to put up 5G “nodes” all over each city in which they offer service. “It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments,” T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray has said of millimeter-wave 5G.

I’ve tested Verizon’s 5G in Chicago twice and T-Mobile’s millimeter-wave network in New York City. With both carriers, 5G has blown me away with hard-to-believe speed, but coverage often exists on a block-by-block basis and is extremely sensitive to anything that comes between you and the millimeter wave nodes that make those instant downloads possible. And indoor coverage is nonexistent. AT&T’s story is likely the same, but I haven’t yet tested its 5G network since it’s only open to businesses and 5G software makers so far; regular customers can’t even get it. And in the majority of cases, uploads still fall back to LTE data speeds, so that half of the equation is underwhelming.

Verizon’s 5G speeds are tantalizing, but holding on to them on the go is nearly impossible.

Sprint’s in a better spot because its 5G network rides on mid-band spectrum and already offers thorough coverage resembling that of LTE in neighborhoods where it has launched. But this approach also means it’s noticeably slower. Plus, it’s still limited to a handful of cities, and Apple isn’t going to build a 5G phone for the last-place US carrier — even if the device could’ve also helped its standing in China.

All of the US carriers are swearing up and down that they’ve got aggressive 5G buildout plans with long lists of cities due to be added over the coming months. I’ve got no doubt that 5G availability will expand significantly as we head into 2020, but I’m less confident I’ll be able to walk around Manhattan or San Francisco a year from now with seamless coverage everywhere. Even so, 5G will be in a much better place then than it is now, so waiting makes all the sense in the world.

Apple has never been first to these things

The original iPhone launched on 2G/Edge when many other phones were 3G-capable at the time. Apple was in no hurry to make the jump to 4G and LTE, and it waited until the iPhone 5 before doing so. Based on precedent, no one expected the company to be quick to the draw with 5G.

And some of the same concerns that prompted Apple’s patience around LTE are confronting early 5G devices: the first LTE phones had mediocre battery life and ran hot. Thankfully, battery life hasn’t been devastated in the same way by Qualcomm’s X50 5G modem, but heat has proven to be an issue in warm weather. Those of us who tested T-Mobile’s Galaxy S10 5G in New York on a blazing summer day found that it frequently dropped back down to 4G due to overheating. Pressing an iced coffee up against your phone to get it performing optimally again isn’t anyone’s dream of 5G.

And Qualcomm’s chip is the only option right now, which leads to another problem.

The technology isn’t there

Right now, there’s no such thing as a 5G phone that supports all the 5G bands and technologies that carriers and device makers ultimately want. Qualcomm is still on its first-generation 5G modem, and companies like Samsung are making headway of their own.

But a multirung strategy that factors in low-, mid-, and high-band spectrum is crucial to making 5G connectivity feel whole, and none of the devices on the market currently will be able to meet that vision when the carriers pursuing it are ready. By next September, Qualcomm will almost certainly have introduced a more capable and future-proofed 5G modem that will better unlock all the potential we keep hearing about. If Apple wanted to get in now, it’d be making different variants of an iPhone 5G for every carrier, and those days are supposed to be behind us.

A millimeter-wave node in Chicago.

Customer satisfaction rules all

Without fail, Apple always trumpets customer satisfaction data for its last iPhone(s) when preparing to announce a new one. CEO Tim Cook regularly claims that the joy people get from their Apple-branded slab of metal and glass is unheard of in the industry. 5G in its current state would turn that upside-down. An iPhone 5G with unpredictable, touch-and-go 5G coverage over the next year would be a frustrating experience for buyers and send Apple’s beloved customer sat numbers downward. People would be just as likely to associate some of the negativity from 5G growing pains with the device as they would with their carrier.

The 5G versions of the Galaxy Note 10 and S10 were never going to sell in significant volume, so you’re not hearing many complaints. These devices, priced hundreds of dollars higher than their mainstream LTE counterparts, exist so that companies can say “first!” and so people who demand 5G right now — anywhere they can get it — can satisfy their wishes for a premium. But they’re never advertised as the headline device or main course. Maybe you’ll remember the OnePlus 7 Pro in a few years, but you likely won’t remember the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G.

When Apple decides to make the 5G switch, it’ll be going all in with a flagship device that’ll be marketed tirelessly. Simply put, there’s more to lose if the experience sucks.

The iPhone 11 Pro has faster LTE than any previous iPhone

What can 5G get you that LTE can’t? Yes, downloading entire movies or seasons from Netflix in a matter of seconds is an impressive tech demo. And the low-latency of 5G will vastly improve the experience of streaming video games — when the networks actually start to offer that low latency. As of now, they still aren’t.

In the meantime, Apple says it has enhanced LTE speeds on the iPhone 11 Pro to new peaks that should be on par with top-tier phones from Samsung. The very knowledgeable Sascha Segan at PCMag expects the 11 Pro, with its 4×4 MIMO and “faster gigabit-class LTE than the iPhone XS” (according to Apple), to be up to 20 percent faster than the XS and XS Max were. Apple has also added support for LTE bands that Verizon will be leaning on in congested metro areas to keep data flowing better. Apple will still be using Intel’s chips to achieve all of this, mind you: it reached peace with Qualcomm too late to make any changes for the 2019 iPhone update cycle.

Your next iPhone upgrade after this one will be to a 5G iPhone

Every indication from reliable reporters is that Apple will take the 5G jump in 2020 with new iPhones that, apart from delivering much faster data rates, will feature a more substantial design change than this year’s iPhone 11 and 11 Pro. And perhaps we’ll get the reverse wireless charging that was rumored but didn’t quite make the cut. This year, Apple’s big focus was on cameras, but next year, it very well could be on a new era of possibilities with the apps we carry in our pocket every day.

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