iPhone 5 release date brings Verizon-Sprint 4G LTE kickoff, AT&T lags
October 13, 2011 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
4G LTE in 2011 is a hoax, which may help explain why the iPhone 5 in 2011 turned out to be a myth. Now set for a 2012 release date at the soonest, based on the fact that the iPhone 4S is about to roll out instead, the current non-existence of the iPhone 5 stands as Exhibit A of Apple’s unwillingness to tie itself to technology which isn’t yet ready for prime time. Sure, all three U.S. iPhone carriers have gotten behind the next generation networking technology, at least verbally. Verizon has gone so far as to build enough LTE towers that they now blanket about one-third of its subscriber base, mostly in larger cities. Sprint, which has already gone nationwide with a much slower form of competing 4G networking, has reversed course and committed to going LTE next year. AT&T, last we checked, has built one LTE tower for testing purposes (Update: AT&T contacted us to kindly point out that they now have 4G LTE up and running in a whopping five U.S. cities, which changes precisely nothing about the crux of this article, but at least they’re not quite as embarrassingly behind as they had been). The precarious chicken-and-egg nature of the impending 4G LTE revolution is such that most people don’t want an LTE enabled phone because the odds are they can’t get an LTE network signal anyway, and the towers aren’t getting built fast enough because most users don’t have an LTE phone to use it on. But moreover, if Apple had launched an iPhone 5 with 4G LTE in 2011, regardless of whether you could have gotten an LTE signal on it, you wouldn’t have wanted to buy one…
Some 4G LTE smartphones from other platforms are already on the market. They’re about the size of a ham sandwich because current 4G LTE hardware antennas are physically massive. They have embarrassingly poor battery life because those giant antennas also happen to use a ton of power. Battery life actually gets worse if you don’t have a 4G LTE signal in your area, because phones searching for a non-existent signal will eat through their battery more quickly, as those who’ve ever had to deal with dead spots can attest. The saving grace of 4G LTE phones in 2011 is that they can also operate on existing 3G networks, which means users can at least get standard smartphone functionality out of them. But if the best feature of a 4G LTE phone is that you can turn the 4G LTE off, that’s a problem. It’s why 4G LTE phones in 2011 are a sucker’s bet, big and heavy and impractically short on power all for the sake of being able to use a faster network which, statistically speaking, you probably won’t be able to use anyway. It’s why Apple didn’t do an iPhone 5 this year, instead opting to stick with the iPhone 4 and its 3G network framework in the form of the faster iPhone 4S. And it’s why the iPhone 5 won’t see a release date until not only when the 4G LTE hardware components evolve into practicality, but also until the carriers get their 4G LTE act together. And that presents a quandary, as the three-horse race is being run at three considerably different speeds…
By the time Apple launches a 4G LTE iPhone 5 in 2012 (spring, summer, fall, take your pick), Verizon could well have blanketed the entire nation (or at least all but the smallest of towns) with 4G LTE towers. Sprint, depending on how quickly it gets started, could come fairly close. But AT&T, which is so far behind in the 4G LTE tower race that it might as well not be in the race thus far, could present a problem. The carrier never so much as finished its 3G network, leaving smaller towns to rely on the anciently slow EDGE network instead. Now AT&T appears to be looking to buy T-Mobile so it can build only a partial 4G LTE network in bigger cities, instead using T-Mobile’s slower quasi-4G nationwide network to fill in the gaps in smaller locales. That means that when Apple rolls out the iPhone 5 next year, it may end up doing so at a time when Verizon and Sprint are ready (or largely ready), even if it means AT&T users are stuck falling back on the built in backwards compatibility with 3G. Here’s more on the iPhone 4S and iPhone 5.
Updated 1:25pm PST with additional LTE information provided by AT&T