As we approach September and the anticipated announcement of the next iPhone(s), speculation is running high about what game-changing new features will be offered — glass body, wireless charging, high quality screen, AR, and so on. But an under-addressed question is whether the Apple’s next phone will support all the new wireless spectrum that is being deployed. There has been a lot of action on the spectrum front: recently completed 600 MHz auctions; operators’ launch of new LTE bands; rollout of LTE Unlicensed; and the awarding of FirstNet. Not surprisingly, Apple and the operators have been mum on the wireless specs of the new device. Lots of ‘no comments’ in response to inquiries. But there are 3-4 important bands which the iPhone 8 (which we’ll call it for the sake of this column) will need to support in order to be competitive with the current state-of-the-art, and keep up with what the operators are planning to launch over the next year on the LTE and LTE Advanced roadmap.
Big question #1 is whether the iPhone 8 will support Band 66, also known as AWS-3 (2100 MHz). This was the big piece missing from the iPhone 7, and Apple received quite a bit of criticism for that omission. This is an important capacity band for AT&T and T-Mobile, especially (DISH also has spectrum here). Most competing flagship phones, such as the Galaxy S8 and LG G6 support this band. It would be a huge gapper if Apple didn’t support this, so I’d give this a 95% likelihood.
Next up is Band 71, and this one is likely to land in the ‘no’ category for the iPhone 8. Band 71 is 600 MHz spectrum band from the recently completed incentive auction. T-Mobile and AT&T were the big winners here, with DISH and Comcast also picking up healthy chunks of spectrum. Because of its dearth of low-band spectrum, T-Mobile is especially eager to deploy services in the 600 MHz band. The company has said it plans to have commercial operations in the 600 MHz band later this year, which is “when new 600 MHz smartphones from leading smartphone manufacturers are anticipated to arrive”, the carrier said in a June press release. We do expect some flagship devices supporting Band 71 to be made available by the end of the year, but I’m not betting on the iPhone 8. In part, that’s because Apple does not tend to support bands that have not been widely deployed. Additionally, Apple’s tilt toward Intel (and/or the use of multiple modem suppliers) would reduce the likelihood of 600 MHz support, since Intel’s latest chip does not support Band 71. So that would be a bit unfortunate for T-Mobile, especially since 600 MHz is a key part of its strategy to narrow the coverage gap with AT&T and Verizon, especially outside cities.
The next big question pertains to LTE Unlicensed. LTE-U provides additional speed and capacity using carrier aggregation in the 5 GHz (Wi-Fi) band, as part of LTE Advanced. T-Mobile announced LTE-U support in six cities in June, with more planned in the coming months. Verizon is also planning to launch LTE-U in 2017. LTE-U utilizes Bands 252/255. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is the one flagship phone currently available that supports LTE-U. To me, it’s a toss-up as to whether the iPhone 8 will support this band, since it’s still in the relatively early stages of deployment. Given that some current and planned competing phones support LTE-U, I’d put the likelihood at 50% or better.
Finally, there’s FirstNet, which is the LTE-based Public Safety Broadband Network in Band 14 of the 700 MHz spectrum. AT&T was awarded the contract for FirstNet earlier this year, and will likely start building the network in earnest in 2018. In addition to deploying 20 MHz for public safety agencies, AT&T will also have the ability to use 40 MHz of spectrum for commercial cellular services. The first group of devices to support FirstNet are likely to be more ruggedized, purpose-built phones, such as the currently available Lex F10 from Motorola. I’m not optimistic that the iPhone 8 will support this band.
The ability of the latest devices to take full advantage of cellular networks’ improved coverage, greater capacity, and faster speeds are as important as all the whiz-bang features promised with the current and anticipated crop of flagship phones. For example, T-Mobile has extolled the Samsung Galaxy S8 as one of the first phones capable of supporting so-called ‘Gigabit LTE’ phones, which is achieved through a combination of carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, and 256 QAM. So for all those having all sorts AR and AI dreams about the next iPhone, let’s also hope that Apple will continue to support the state-of-the-art in cellular.