Apple's iPhone 13 event just proves that no one really cares about 5G

Commentary: Once a highlight feature, 5G got reduced to a quick segment before Apple moved on to other core features and upgrades.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile | 5G | Big Tech | Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
4 min read
Apple Event new iPhone 13

Tim Cook didn't mention 5G at all this year. 

Screenshot by CNET

Apple executives didn't spare any superlatives this week when introducing the new iPhone 13 and the iPhone 13 Pro and Pro Max. The iPhone 13 Pro, they said, is "the most Pro" phone yet. The iPhone camera got an upgrade, and Apple tapped Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow to show off its many capabilities, predicting that the new Cinematic Mode would open opportunities for aspiring directors. The phones, they noted as well, will be the longest lasting yet, with new, bigger batteries across the line

Somewhere in the middle of the 80-minute presentation were about 90 seconds spent on 5G.

That's a far cry from when Apple held up its shiny new iPhone 12 nearly a year ago. Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg joined Apple CEO Tim Cook during the 2020 keynote to talk about 5G, which served as the marquee feature and reason to upgrade. "5G just got real," Vestberg proclaimed. Even as recently as July, during Apple's fiscal third-quarter earnings conference call, Cook said 5G was "in the very early innings" and suggested a high ceiling. Yet on Tuesday, it was barely a blip. 

The relegation of 5G from center stage to side act underscores the bumpy introduction of the next-generation wireless technology. Once heralded as a game-changer with blazing speeds, 5G has in reality been a wildly inconsistent set of experiences depending on devices and location. Unfortunately, the places with the highest speeds are the ones you're probably avoiding in the pandemic. The result: consumers shrugging at what the carriers had hoped would inject some enthusiasm and excitement into wireless service. 

"From an Apple consumer-centric approach, there is no killer app -- besides a speed test -- that really takes advantage of the faster speeds and lower latency," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "Why advertise something that the consumer will not experience as a tangible benefit?"

The experience you got with 5G was already inconsistent prior to last year's iPhone 12. Verizon touted an ultra-fast flavor powered by millimeter wave spectrum, the kind of connection that would let you download seasons of a TV show in seconds, but the service was available only in stadiums or crowded city centers -- not the best places to be over the last year and a half. On the other end, T-Mobile touted full nationwide coverage with a version of 5G that was only marginally faster than 4G. 

But Apple was supposed to bring some simplicity and spark interest in 5G, just like it had with everything from mobile payments to wireless charging. Other companies jump into new technologies early, but Apple comes in with a polished version that gets the masses pumped. Having Apple adding all flavors of 5G across all of its devices in the US was also an impressive feat. 

"5G is the most exciting step yet," Cook touted in his speech last year. 

Sales of the iPhone 12 were brisk right out of the gate. A new design for the iPhone, including upgraded cameras, as well as the typical Apple fan devotion, spurred record sales of its latest flagship device. It was such a success that it drove Apple's sales and profits to new records despite launching in a pandemic, says my colleague and CNET editor Ian Sherr. 

But 5G was more along for the ride than a driver of interest. With the iPhone 13, it might as well be in the trunk. 

More 5G in more places

This year, Cook didn't mention 5G. Kaiann Drance, vice president of iPhone marketing for Apple, devoted a perfunctory 90-second segment on the wider embrace of the technology with the new iPhone. She mentioned that the iPhone 13 would be able to connect to 5G networks from over 200 carriers in more than 60 countries and regions this year. 

"5G will be far more relevant to consumers in Europe and the US this year than last, as carriers build out their midband 5G networks," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Techsponential, who referred to the flavor of spectrum that offers a good mix of speed and range. 

Even in the US, network rollouts are still happening. 

"5G still isn't really ubiquitous despite carrier claims," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. 

But beyond that short segment, Apple only offered a token mention of 5G when touting its the new iPad Mini and ninth-generation iPad

Apple was more keen to talk about the 5G capabilities in its iPhone a year ago. Drance talked to me and my colleague Patrick Holland about the technology they incorporated into the radios that kept 5G from being a total power hog on the iPhone 12 (Android makers had similar settings as well).

Instead, Apple this year focused on core features like the iPhone 13's improved camera, as well as the extra battery life

Still, that won't stop carriers from pushing the new iPhone, which represents one of the biggest opportunities to nab new customers or poach subscribers from rivals with some great deals. AT&T and Verizon, for instance, have already laid out aggressive trade-in offers for the new iPhones, while T-Mobile has a "Forever" upgrade plan that gives you $800 for a new iPhone every two years.  

It's not like 5G is a bust. The thing about the technology, as muddled as its introduction has been, is that there remains a lot of potential. It's still seen as a foundation for other breakthroughs like self-driving cars and telemedicine. 

Verizon and AT&T are racing to roll out a new flavor of midband spectrum that's supposed to provide a big speed boost to 5G, something T-Mobile has already been doing this year. 

Maybe at that point, Apple will deem 5G interesting enough to bring up again during a future iPhone launch.