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With new models, Apple will raise mobile network speeds

In 2018, Apple is on the “speed” or “S” year in its normal two-year iPhone update cycle: Apple usually launches a new iPhone design one year, then the next year it keeps the exterior design the same but updates the iPhone’s components to deliver faster performance. Historically, Apple has focused on the speed of its application processor or graphics; we believe it’s now time for Apple to talk about mobile network speeds as well.

Globally, iPhone users experience 15.7 Mbps average LTE download speeds based on measurements of our users. This speed is set to rise with improvements included in the new iPhone models Apple is launching this month, such as new modems and antenna designs.  Apple also will likely build on last year’s cellular Apple Watch Series 3 with a new model. These smartphone enhancements will help mobile operators to maximize returns on their mobile network investments.

If Apple chooses the latest Intel modem, it will enable them to create the first dual SIM iPhone. Such a dual SIM model would help Apple compete in geographies where dual SIM smartphones are popular, including India and China.

Overall, iPhone users experience similar or faster average download speeds than Android users

In nine countries studied by Opensignal across our users, we found iPhone users experienced slightly slower or slightly faster average mobile network speeds than Android users based on our measurements depending on the country. In Brazil, the LTE download speeds iPhone users experienced were especially high relative to Android users: 22.5 Mbps experienced by iPhone users compared with just 18.6 Mbps experienced by Android smartphone users overall. The relatively faster speeds we measured from iPhone devices is in part explained by the wide mixture of Android smartphone models: Android smartphones represent a wide range of price points and capabilities — not just premium models — while all iPhone models are generally higher-end devices.

Globally, in Opensignal’s study of our users, iPhone owners experienced 15.7 Mbps LTE download speeds compared with 13.8 Mbps for Android users overall. However, if we consider only premium Android smartphones we see a different trend. For this chart, we have looked at the most popular premium, or flagship, Android smartphones. We have defined “flagship” here to be the fifty most common Android smartphones in our database, which include a Snapdragon 800 chipset, or equivalent chipset from Mediatek, Samsung Exynos or HiSilicon. In this comparison, Android flagship smartphone users experienced 23.9 Mbps LTE download speed (*).

Why Apple has not innovated more to create a better  iPhone mobile network experience

Given how important cellular connectivity is to a smartphone, why do Apple iPhone users experience these speeds and not faster ones? There are many reasons for this:

  • iPhone models tend to be physically smaller than Android smartphones. In smaller smartphones there is less space to fit high quality antennas. Delivering LTE Cat 16 on a smartphone with the four antennas needed to provide 4×4 MIMO (**) is particularly challenging, and will be a major challenge for upcoming 5G smartphones aiming to support millimeter wave bands. Many iPhones in use have 4” displays, and the mainstream iPhone 8 or iPhone 7 have 4.7” displays while almost all Android smartphones now routinely include at least a 5” display. The larger size of two of 2018’s new iPhone models will make it easier for Apple to include support for a faster mobile network experience.
  • There are few mobile networks live running LTE Cat 16. According to the GSA, globally there are just 16 operators who have deployed LTE Cat 16 networks supporting all three of the necessary technologies for “gigabit” speed in August 2018, ten months after the iPhone X launched. This explains why Apple chose to include only LTE Cat 12 support on the iPhone X. This still delivers up to 600 Mbps download speeds, many times faster than average mobile network speeds anywhere in the world. The new iPhone models will likely use Intel’s LTE Cat 16-capable modem. For more information, see GSA’s report: “Gigabit LTE Networks: Analysis of Deployments Worldwide”.
  • It’s impossible to fit everything into a small handheld device. Smartphone design is all about the trade-offs. How to fit the best mix of features into a product which is pocketable, not too heavy, and delivers good battery life, and keeps within a target bill of materials cost. A single smartphone cannot do everything, handset makers must always make hard choices and prioritize ruthlessly.

Cellular connectivity is a strategic feature for all of Apple’s mobile devices, not just smartphones

In two product areas, Apple has recently started to market cellular connectivity as a major feature even when other companies have decided it is not worth the effort. This ongoing focus demonstrates that Apple sees cellular connectivity as a strategic technology for the future. Notably:

  • Apple bucked industry trends and added cellular connectivity to Apple Watch Series 3. While Samsung, Huawei and LG have had little success with smartwatches featuring mobile connectivity, Apple has persevered. Why? Because Apple clearly sees cellular connectivity as a strategic feature across its current product line. And should Apple launch smart glasses as rumored, having the ability to create a tiny cellular device the size of a watch is an essential enabler.
  • Each new iPad always includes cellular options. While most iPads sold are Wifi-only and most other tablet makers have dropped cellular connectivity on their tablets, Apple has always offered optional cellular support on all iPad models.

Apple prefers to design strategic technologies in-house

Apple is often criticized for being behind its competition with smartphone innovation. In reality, it chooses to innovate in different areas to the rest of the market. Apple is able to do this by taking key technologies in-house so it is no longer dependent on the release timing of technology suppliers as it has been with its use of Intel or Qualcomm modems on the iPhone to date.

Taking future iPhone modem designs in-house is a natural next step because of Apple’s history with other related strategic technologies. Examples where Apple designs key technologies in-house include but are not limited to:

  • Application processor. Since 2010 Apple has designed its own processor, branded it A series, and built it into the system on a chip (SoC) used in iPhones.
  • Graphics processing unit (GPU). Apple launched iPhone X, iPhone 8 and 8 Plus with an in-house graphics processor replacing Imagination’s products which were used in all previous iPhones. Like the application processor, the GPU is a major part of the iPhone SoC.
  • AI processing unit. Apple debuted this component in 2017. It is also a part of the main SoC. The only major remaining part of the SoC which Apple does not design is the modem.
  • Bluetooth chip, for short range wireless communication. Apple’s 2016 AirPods used an Apple-designed W1 Bluetooth chip to improve ease of connection, reliability and battery life.
  • “3D Touch”. The haptics used since the iPhone 6S to deliver a pressure sensitive display are an entirely Apple design.
  • Touch ID. The fingerprint sensors used on almost all iPhones since 2013’s iPhone 5S are Apple’s design following the company’s acquisition of supplier AuthenTec.

Given Apple’s product development culture and the critical importance of the smartphone modems and antenna design to the real-world network experience of smartphones, we expect Apple will eventually take modem design in-house too. If not in 2018, Apple will use the generational shift to 5G new radio to make the move.

Regardless, the mobile network experience of iPhones is set to improve. And Apple clearly has big plans for cellular connectivity across all of its mobile devices.

At previous launch events Apple has rarely talked about the technical details of individual components — the “feeds and speeds” often criticized by Steve Jobs — and instead detailed specifications tend to follow later when reviewers received production units. So we will likely have to wait to learn the specifics of the mobile network performance of the new iPhone models and new cellular Apple Watch. Typically, this will be 10-14 days after Apple’s announcement which this year will take place on Tuesday, September 12.

Apple now sees wireless connectivity as a strategic feature across all its mobile devices including Apple Watch, iPad, AirPods and perhaps in time smart glasses. Offering more consumer mobile devices with cellular connectivity -— such as Apple Watch —- helps to increase the market size for mobile operators and enable new Internet of Things (IoT) revenue streams.


* To understand more about our  analysis of “flagship” models, interested parties should contact us at [email protected] for further detailed investigation of the Opensignal data, before building new strategies around smartphone mobile network experience.

** Multiple Input Multiple Output – a type of antenna design.