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iPhone 12 May Be the Only Future-Proof 5G Phone

Apple’s iPhone 12 is the first major US phone we’ve seen that supports ‘C-Band,’ a future 5G network system.

By Sascha Segan

The new iPhone 12 lineup may be the first phones to support powerful new 5G networks coming to the US in 2021, if our sources are correct. These networks, called “C-Band,” would let AT&T or Verizon match T-Mobile at offering citywide 5G speeds of 500Mbps or above, rather than those carriers’ current 4G-like “nationwide” 5G speeds.

Currently, most AT&T and Verizon 5G users are stuck in the slow lane because the carriers lack sufficient airwaves for broad-coverage, high-speed 5G. AT&T’s nationwide 5G uses only 5 megahertz of spectrum, an extremely narrow channel. We found it to be slower than its 4G network in our 26-city tests. Verizon’s nationwide network will share existing 4G channels with its 4G network, and so won’t have much better than 4G performance, like we saw in Chicago.

(I’m saying “nationwide” to make a clear difference from Verizon’s super-fast, but hard-to-find “ultra wideband” 5G network. That has plenty of spectrum and great speeds, but little coverage.)

Here’s the basic takeaway: AT&T and Verizon are likely to introduce new, faster citywide 5G in late 2021. Current Android phones won’t support it; you’ll probably have to wait until March 2021 for Android phones that will. The new iPhones, on the other hand, will probably support the new network.

Deep In the Weeds of C-Band

This December, the government will auction 280MHz of prime airwaves between current 4G bands and the 5GHz Wi-Fi band. Those frequencies have similar range to carriers’ current high-speed, in-city 4G systems, meaning that they’ll be able to provide 5G speeds citywide. (They aren’t great for reaching rural areas, though, except for fixed home wireless use.)

It will take a while to get C-Band fully up to speed, because it’s currently occupied by satellite companies. Under current rules, they’re only required to free up space in three phases starting in December 2021 and ending in December 2025. But as we saw with T-Mobile’s LTE band 71, which had previously been occupied by TV stations, wireless carriers often have ways of speeding up those clearances once they get hold of the licenses.

Verizon’s Adam Koeppe confirmed that US C-Band will take on the band number n77, and Apple said the iPhones support band n77. According to Aaron Pressman, analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson said the phones will support US C-Band.

This FCC test result shows the iPhone 12 supporting band n77.

A tipster confirmed to me that the FCC’s certifications for the iPhone 12 series include band n77, the first time I’ve heard of that appearing in a US phone. I checked the FCC certification for the Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, and that one doesn’t have it. While some foreign phones support n77, I haven’t seen any US phones with it before now. (And before you think of importing those foreign phones, they tend to lack other bands that US networks currently use.)

Japan currently has 5G networks on band n77. Many other foreign countries have existing 5G networks on band n78, which is a subset of n77. Phones that support n78 but not the full n77 band will not be able to make full use of US C-Band because our allocation operates on a slightly higher frequency than n78 allows.

The tipster pointed out that the iPhones’ n77 can only be “anchored” on LTE band b41, a frequency almost wholly owned by T-Mobile. That means for Verizon and AT&T, the C-Band transition will have to go in tandem with switching to standalone 5G networks. This is actually a good thing for consumers; it means that when the switchover happens, the C-Band networks are likely to have much lower latency than your 4G network as well. And it won’t hold up the launches much; Seeking Alpha reported that AT&T plans to launch standalone 5G at the end of this year, and Verizon will launch it in 2021.

Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com.



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