iPhone 12 — Making Sense of the 5G Mess

Rumor has it the upcoming iPhone 12 will finally — markdown double asterisk finally — have 5G radios. Sub 6, maybe even Sub 9 on the mini and regular 12, and mmWave on the Pro and Max.

But, what does all of that jargon even mean? In general… and for the vast majority of people in the real world thinking of buying and using it?


Ok, so, I’ll get to the problems with 5G in a hot minute but, if you’re not sure what 5G is… well… broadly speaking it’s just the 5th generation of cellular networking. In other words, radio networks that are divided up into small, regional “cells” that are served by cell towers.

The original iPhone was 2G. GSM and EDGE data only. AT&T almost exclusively. Seriously, Verizon took a hard pass. Right at the beginning.

The second one was 3G — said so right in the name. It wasn’t until the iPhone 4 that we got a CDMA/EVDO variant to work on Verizon and their slower but wider coverage network.

And for a couple years there you had to figure out, depending on your carrier, whether you should by the GSM or CDMA iPhone. Basically, if you ever needed to use it on Verizon or not.

The iPhone 5 was 4G, also known as LTE or Long Term Evolution. It improved speeds with aggregation and multi-in-multi-out. But it was also a great unification of sorts — anyone could buy the world phone version and use it, at least functionally… in most major markets. And, while Apple eventually ended up splitting the enormous amount of LTE bands across a few different models, knowing what kind of network you’re on just hasn’t been something most people have had to worry about for a few years now.

But, the iPhone 12 is widely expected to be 5G NR, or New Radio.

If you even have 5G in your area drop a comment below and let me know where and what kind because, yeah, 5G is just… well, it’s just a bit of thing again.

Frequency Range 1

So, there are a few of different flavors of 5G.

There’s fake 5G. What AT&T in the U.S. calls 5Ge, which is actually really fast 4G LTE, but it’s not 5G. So, yeah, shame. Shame. Shame.

But really, first is Frequency Range 1, which is the low to mid-band flavor of 5G.

It’s sometimes referred to as Sub-6, because it was generally assumed it would stick below 6GHz. Now though, it may end up going to Sub-7, Sub-8, maybe even Sub-9 depending on where and who you talk to.

So, I’m just going to call it FR1.

This is the type of 5G that the base model iPhones 12, the less-expensive 5.4-inch and 6.1-inch non-Pro models, are supposed to be getting. At least in the markets where it’s already up and running.

Frequency Range 2

The second is Frequency Range 2, which is the high-band flavor of 5G.

It’s sometimes referred to as mmWave, basically because the wave-lengths are so short they can be measured in millimeters. And carriers seem to just love the way that name sounds.

So, again, I’m just going to call it FR2.

And this is the type of 5G that the Pro model iPhone 12, the 6.1-inch and 6.7-inch Max models, are supposed to be getting in addition to FR1. At least in the few markets where that’s up and running.

So, what’s the difference between the two?

FR1 vs. FR2

The best.. and worst… way to think about cellular networking is speed and capacity vs. range and penetration.

Back in the 3G days, AT&T had faster speeds but Verizon had the bigger network. The reason for that was because CDMA wasn’t as fast but had a much further range, so Verizon could serve the same area with fewer towers, or more areas with the same amount of towers. There were other technological tradeoffs as well, like simultaneous voice and data, but that’s the important bit for our purposes right now.

FR1 is similar to that. It doesn’t have anywhere nearly the speed of FR2 but it can serve a much, much, much — did I say the appropriate amount of much-es yet? — much… bigger area using traditional cellular networking type towers.

It’s only like 20% or so faster than LTE and only at the upper, mid-band portion of the frequency range, but by virtue of the 5G protocols — how everything is packetized and beam-formed and sliced and massively multi’d — it has much better capacity than LTE.

So, as my friend and former colleague Daniel Bader of Android Central likes to say, FR1 should finally deliver on the promise of LTE… for everyone. Everyone outside the big cities, especially in more rural areas, who just never got anywhere near decent reception or data speeds. Those people, should start getting just exactly that.

Which means, at best, you’ll get moderately better than LTE speeds, with far less congestion, and in places that never got anywhere nearly LTE speeds before.

And, at worst, you’ll get similar-to-LTE speeds or just literally fall back on or still be on LTE in places where there still isn’t 5G. Which will be a lot but be fewer and fewer in the months and years to come.

FR2 is the opposite. It has monstrous capacity and is just blazingly fast. Like tap-on-your-2GB-movie-whao-it’s-already-downloaded fast. But… the range and penetration is just… awful. Like, oh-damn-it’s-raining-my-movie-download-dropped awful.

You can think of it like the Holtzman shield in Dune, where a slow dagger could get through but not ballistics, or even water where if you jump in from low enough, you dive, high enough, you bounce… and splat.

FR2 requires new clusters of tiny towers, and basically requires them everywhere. And that’s just to get signal on the outside. In direct line-of-sight.

So, at best, you’ll be sitting alone on or just across from a set of micro 5G access points, and you’ll get speeds the likes of which you’d never have thoughts possible on a phone or mobile device before. Exponentially faster than LTE.

At worst, you’ll walk a few steps, or turn around, or go inside, or pass behind a tree or leaf or whatever and the mmWave connection will be blocked faster than a trash-talker on Twitter, and you’ll fall back on a slower but more reliable connection.

And maybe that’ll also change in the months and years ahead, but… well, one more thing before I get into that.


In order to benefit from better, faster, stronger signals, we’re also going to need better, faster, stronger backhaul. Normally, fiber optics. And lots of it.

Think of it like this — your home Wi-Fi router is the tower, and the cable from your ISP or internet service provider, is the backhaul.

It doesn’t really matter how fast and furious your new, shiny WiFi 6 router is if you’re plugging it into a string and tin can on the other end.

So, in order to make use of all these fancy new phones with 5G modems, they not only have to connect to 5G towers, those 5G towers need a ton of fast fiber backhaul to serve all those connections. Though, now, some carriers are testing FR2 as a wireless backhaul for FR1. Our world, it is hilarious.

That’s why there’s really two other, very different, but far more practical kinds of 5G:

The beautiful dream kind finance and marketing people are trying to sell us to gin up demand and kickstart new business opportunities.

And… the for real kind technical and engineering people will tell us is still mostly just a beautiful dream.

Future of 5G

Now, a lot of people have bought 5G phones already because a lot of Android phones have supported 5G for a year or more already. Some of them inarguably as a gimmick to the point of providing terrible customer experiences just for the chance to yell FIRST !! 1 in the equivalent of a comment section.

But not a lot of people have the ability to use those phones on full-on 5G networks.

Especially not FR2 networks. Which, quite frankly, I’m still not sure will ever become a real consumer-facing technology.

Like, maybe it’ll be deployed in stadiums, when we can go back to stadiums, to handle tons of high-density, line of sight connections.

But we’ll have to wait and see.

And carriers are being all shades of dodgy about 5G still as well. Talking about which cities it’s in but making you dig deep to see just how few parts of those cities. Or just saying 5G because it’s almost all FR1 and they don’t want you to know it doesn’t have the speed they’ve been bragging about, which comes with FR2.

For now, it is legitimately a good sign Apple is going to 5G on the iPhone 12 and for a couple of reasons.

One, it shows the carriers are confident enough to allow a hundred thousand plus new 5G connections onto their networks. Which, given how the iPhone sales cycle works, isn’t something they typically don’t do until they’re fairly confident. And yeah, it’s not just Apple being conservative when it comes to how long they wait on new cellular networks. It’s quite often the networks themselves that are pleading — can you not yet?

Anyone who had an LTE phone the day before and the day after the iPhone 5 launch knows of the freight train of which I speak.

And, two, it shows that Apple is fairly confident whatever generation of Qualcomm 5G modem they’ll be using, be it the current X55 or next-generation X60, will at least be efficient enough not to melt the glass casing or burn down the battery or otherwise force Joanna Stern to pack it into her cooler like the first-ten ones did.

5G Realities

So, yeah, the iPhone 12 will have 5G… Most likely RF1 in the base models, which will be great in areas that have thus far been underserved by LTE, when and if the networks deliver on it.

Then, RF1 + RF2 in the Pro models, which will do that, plus offer way better speeds in major cities with dense populations, willing to hang out their windows to hang on to the signal. Kidding. Kinda. Maybe.

And yeah, those FR2 models will probably be limited to the very, very few countries that have FR2 networks.

Like, my network in Canada has just started rolling out low band, promises mid-band in the near future, and high band… one day. Because Canada still hasn’t held its 5G auctions to make the spectrum available and won’t now until mid-2021.

But, for most people in most of the world, who don’t have good 5G or any 5G yet, the iPhone 12 will still fallback just fine on LTE networks as well. Probably even better than the last couple of generations since the modems are from Qualcomm again.

For a lot of people, that reason alone will be reason enough to get it.