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President Trump doesn't seem to understand Apple or 5G

Commentary: His tweet about Apple "building 5G in the US" makes no sense.

- 03:29

President Trump has strong feelings about 5G. 

James Martin/CNET

President Donald Trump is making the most out of his visit Wednesday to a Texas plant that makes Apple computers. In addition to taking credit for the plant, which has been open since 2013 and is run by a separate supplier, he tweeted Thursday that he asked Apple CEO Tim Cook about getting Apple involved in "building 5G in the U.S.," noting that the company has the "Money, Technology, Vision and Cook!!"

But if you know anything about 5G – admittedly, a complicated topic – you'll know that tweet doesn't really make a lot of sense.

ReadWhen will cheap 5G come to the masses?

Trump, who was touring the plant as Apple announced the opening of a separate new 3-million-square-foot facility in Austin, Texas, has talked about 5G in the past, particularly as it pertains to the US's technology leadership over China. It's why Trump blocked the takeover of mobile chip giant Qualcomm by Singapore-based Broadcom.  

The tweet, however, suggests that the president doesn't understand what 5G is or even necessarily what Apple does. 

It's reminiscent of Trump's call earlier in the year for the US to rush ahead with "6G" technology -- something that simply won't be a reality for years to come. We're only just now starting to see the first real-world rollouts of 5G, and in small doses at that.

Below is a breakdown of why Trump's Apple 5G tweet is wrong.

Neither Apple nor the White House were available for a follow-up comment.

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Apple doesn't build networks

Apple can't bring 5G to the US because it doesn't build the networks that are necessary to offer the service. For that, you'd have to look to carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile and, by extension, their network suppliers. That is, Trump should be talking to companies like Nokia, Samsung and Ericsson.

Unfortunately, none of the network suppliers is a US company. Lucent, one of the last big US-based suppliers, was acquired by Alcatel, which in turn was purchased by Nokia in 2016.

Apple's vast fortune won't help

Even if Apple hypothetically wanted to build its own network, creating one that covers even just the US would be dauntingly expensive. The company had more than $200 billion in cash on hand as of its fiscal third quarter, and it would need much of that to build a network from scratch.

It's an unlikely project, since the return on investment and profit margins on the wireless business aren't as high as on its premium hardware or services. Plus, Apple's already pouring money into the entertainment business -- it has other priorities.

We already have 5G networks

It's sexy to invoke Apple's name when it comes to new technology. But the carriers, which generate far less buzz than their Silicon Valley counterparts, have already been building 5G in the US. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have varying degrees of next-generation cellular deployments out. T-Mobile is set to launch nationwide coverage of 5G next month

Apple could built its own network, but why would it when others are already springing up?

Apple doesn't build 5G phones (yet)

You can make the argument that Apple could bring a wave of 5G interest by putting the technology into the phone. That would be correct – if the latest iPhone 11 had 5G. It doesn't. 

Speculation points to Apple bringing 5G to its phones next year. Indeed, Strategy Analytics predicts Apple will lead the 5G smartphone race in 2020 by the sheer volume of devices it sells.

And like other technologies such as wireless charging and multiple cameras, Apple's embrace of 5G could get the technology into the minds of more consumers than ever. 

But right now, the handful of 5G phones are built by the likes of Samsung, LG and OnePlus. Those handset makers, as well as carriers around the world, are leading the 5G charge, not Apple.

Published at 8:21 a.m. PT.

Updated at 10:45 a.m.