Why the iPhone 5 won't have Verizon 4G (Q&A)

The iPhone 5 isn't likely to get LTE 4G capability because the technology just isn't there yet, according to an analyst who follows the 4G market.

The iPhone 5, expected later this year , likely won't have 4G capability--or what is more precisely described as LTE. Here's why.

First, a quick preamble. Because of the liberal use of the term by carrier marketing departments, the definition of 4G is fuzzy , meaning different things (e.g., performance, specifications) for different carriers. For the sake of this discussion, 4G will be described as LTE, or Long Term Evolution, which offers, among other things, higher download and upload speeds compared to 3G.

I asked Will Strauss, president of wireless chip market research firm Forward Concepts, why the iPhone 5 probably won't have LTE, in the wake of comments by Apple Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook, who said that the "first generation of LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises." Cook was speaking during Apple's earnings conference call on Wednesday. A higher level of integration, resulting in more compact chip designs, is necessary, according to Strauss.

Q: Why is LTE currently immature, as Cook alluded to in his remarks yesterday?
Strauss: It's not Apple's fault, it's just that the wireless folks don't have what they need at the moment. [For example there's] the HTC Thunderbolt...but that's a kludge. It's big and it doesn't have a single LTE-3G chip. It has an LTE baseband (modem) chip and a second 3G chip from Qualcomm for the voice functions. They can't do voice over LTE now. Not Verizon. Not anybody.

So what products are out there aside from the Thunderbolt?
Strauss: The LTE that Verizon is shipping is on a dongle that you plug into your laptop. Then you have TeliaSonera in Europe. But that's all LTE dongles too. It's not handsets. The No. 1 provider of LTE chipsets so far is Samsung and they've been shipping for over a year. But it's for dongles (mostly).

When are the integrated chips coming that a company like Apple would use?
Strauss: 2012. By then we'll have integrated solutions from Qualcomm and ST-Ericsson and others.

And coverage?
Strauss: Those [LTE] phones will need the [integrated] 3G component because no matter what kind of coverage Verizon is offering January in 2012, they'll have much greater coverage in January of 2013. And there are a lot of places where they can't pick up LTE so it has to be able to downclutch to 3G and in some places even 2G. Same thing with AT&T, it would have to downclutch.

And more specifically, what about other 4G chipsets?
Altair FourGee-3100 is undergoing field trials. Broadcom via Beceem acquisition is likely sampling Q1 2012. Cavium Networks via WaveSat acquisition has the Odyssey Single-mode LTE chip, which is sampling. Intel-Infineon expects to sample LTE in Q3 2011. MediaTek licensed LTE from DoCoMo. That product is likely sampling Q1 2012 for TD-LTE.

Updated on April 25: Verizon now has two 4G phones. In addition to the Thunderbolt, the Droid Charge by Samsung was introduced last week. And MetroPCS has the Samsung Craft and Samsung Indulge.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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