Apple Will Take A Pass On 4G Networks For The iPhone In 2011— Sorry Verizon and AT&T

Back in August I broke the news that Apple was lining up a component purchase of several million chipsets from Qualcomm for a CDMA-powered Verizon iPhone due in January. Last week, over two months later, the Wall Street Journal confirmed this story.

Now that folks are finally celebrating the iPhone’s imminent arrival to Verizon, speculation has shifted to whether the January model will take advantage of Verizon’s “4G” network. 4G (not to be confused with iPhone 4) refers to the fourth generation of cellular standards, and both Verizon and AT&T have publicly released launch plans for 4G networks based on LTE in 2011.

This impending shift from 3G to 4G presents a major inflection point in the reign of the iPhone franchise. Does Apple move to 4G right away, or do they wait for the network to mature? Recall that Apple waited to support 3G for one entire cycle, opting to release the original iPhone on AT&T’s mature 2.5G EDGE network, despite wide availability of 3G by early 2007.

That situation mirrors what is happening now with LTE in 2011, and as these questions become front and center, I have some very interesting news to share about Apple’s plans.

First things first — the iPhone CDMA model due in January won’t support LTE.  But here’s where it gets really interesting: sources tell me that the iPhone refresh in mid-2011 won’t support LTE either. Instead, Apple will produce a dual mode iPhone containing 3G flavors of GSM and CDMA, which operates on all carriers worldwide. If this holds true, Apple won’t support the LTE standard until some time in 2012.

A lot of you aren’t going to be very happy with this news, since 4G-enabled Android phones already exist on Sprint’s WiMAX network, and dual-mode LTE-enabled Android phones will start to emerge for use on Verizon’s new network in the first half of next year.

But as we cut through the hype on LTE, I believe Apple’s decision to wait may be the right one. While the carriers are promising LTE as an upgrade path that will drive new applications and higher speeds, the reality is that 4G deployments will take much longer than the carriers are letting on.

Apple doesn’t want to mess with the first generation of LTE chipsets, since they will be bulky and power hungry. Instead, Apple will make a unified model that works across 3G networks on all carriers, and innovate with incredible new features like NFC which mirror what they accomplished with FaceTime on iPhone 4.

Apple simply doesn’t want to be the guinea pig on new LTE networks that aren’t ready for primetime, and Steve Jobs knows not to trust the hype that’s spewed by the carriers on 4G. The truth is that 3G networks have many more years of life, and the transition to LTE will be much slower than the carriers want you to believe (LTE doesn’t even have its voice standard fleshed out yet).

This is why AT&T is upgrading modem cards in its basestations to support the newest flavor of 3G called HSPA+, and it’s why Verizon is rumored to be working hard on Voice over Revision A, which will allow simultaneous data and voice. These upgrades greatly extend the life of 3G networks, and hedge against the transition to LTE. And Apple is pushing the carriers to extend 3G.

So if you’re waiting for an iPhone that works on 4G carrier networks, it’s probably going to be a while. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more about this story as the months unfold, especially as next summer’s iPhone approaches the “engineering verification test” stage. But based on my knowledge of both the supply chain and networking infrastructure, I feel pretty confident this is the way it’s going to play out.


Contributor Steve Cheney is an entrepreneur and formerly an engineer & programmer specializing in web and mobile technologies.