When will a 4G-enabled iPhone 5 be ready? (Ask Maggie)

Despite record breaking pre-sales of the iPhone 4S, there are still many AppleiPhone fans who were disappointed that the company didn’t launch a newly designed, 4G-enablediPhone 5.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I do my best to answer the unanswerable: when will the real iPhone 5 hit the market? I also offer some further explanation for why theiPhone 4S, even though it is the exact same phone sold on every carrier, will not be able to be used on all three U.S. iPhone carriers. In other words, I explain why a Verizon iPhone 4S won’t work on AT&T’s or Sprint’s network, even though it’s the exact same phone.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers’ wireless and broadband questions. the column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie’s advice. If you have a question, I’d love to hear from you. please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. and please put “Ask Maggie” in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

Dear Maggie, I still have the iPhone 3GS. I was hoping for the iPhone 5, but no such luck. I know some of the reasons why Apple likely introduced the iPhone 4S instead of the iPhone 5. In your opinion, do you think Apple will release the iPhone 5 in June 2012? I probably can hold out until then t for the iPhone 5. but if it’s going to be September or October, then I’ll go ahead and get the iPhone 4S.

Dear k_love357, It’s always difficult to predict when Apple, which is one of the most secretive companies, will launch a new model of a popular product, such as the iPhone. and it’s even harder to make such a prediction right after the latest model has been introduced.

Still, “When is the next iPhone coming?” is by far the most frequently asked question that I get. so I will do my best to offer my opinion as you have asked. but please keep in mind this is my personal opinion. I don’t have inside knowledge into Apple’s product launch strategy. I don’t own a crystal ball. and there’s a good chance that I may be wrong.

But I have been covering this beat for a while, and I’ve observed several Apple product launches. so I think I have some valuable insight based on this history. and if you’ve been following my work, I can say that I have a pretty good track record for making certain predictions. I said as far back as February that I didn’t think that a new iPhone model introduced in 2011 would have 4G LTE capability. and I was correct. For some consumers, the lack of 4G LTE is among one of the big disappointments of the iPhone 4S. but I always suspected that introducing a 4G LTE device in 2011 would be too soon for Apple.

So when do I think the new iPhone 5 will be on the market, and what are some of the key features that I think will be a part of this new product?

Let’s start with the new features. I think the new iPhone will likely sport the new teardrop-shape, thinner design that many have talked about for months. There’s been way too much chatter about the new design of this product for Apple to not be pretty far along in some of the new design elements of the device. Plus, a newly designed product fits with Apple’s previous timeline and strategy for product launches. the iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS had the same design, but the 3GS had improved components. and then came the iPhone 4, which had a new design. now the iPhone 4S will sport the same basic design as the previous generation iPhone 4, but it will have a better camera and faster processor.

In addition to the new design, I also expect the iPhone 5, if that’s what Apple chooses to call the next iPhone, to include the 4G network technology LTE. and I also think it will include Near Field Communications or NFC, a technology that turns iPhones into digital wallets used to store and offer payments for things by touching the device to a special terminal.

NFC makes sense because it’s a feature that Apple’s biggest competitor, Google Android phones, will have. In 2012, every major smartphone manufacturer making devices based on the Google Android OS is expected to have NFC chips in its high-end smartphones. Google will be pushing this technology in a big way over the next year as it tries to promote its Google Wallet application and technology.

NFC was rumored to be in the iPhone schedule for launch this fall. but it didn’t materialize. That’s why I think it will likely be in the next iteration of the device. In some ways, it has to be in order to keep up with a slew of new Google Android devices.

the same is true of the faster 4G network technology called LTE. over the next year, LTE will become a significant feature in most high-end smartphones. In order for the iPhone to continue to compete in these markets and against manufacturers using the Google Android operating system, Apple will need a product that can also offer 4G speeds.

While AT&T claims that its version of the iPhone 4S will operate on a “4G” network, this claim is a stretch of the truth. the 4G AT&T refers to is for its HSDPA technology or a technology it calls HSPA+. but the chip inside the iPhone 4S doesn’t support the fastest available speeds, which can go up to 21MBps. Instead, it only supports the 14Mbps spec. this coupled with the fact that AT&T has still not upgraded all of its markets with sufficient backhaul infrastructure, means that it will be likely for most consumers to notice a supposed speed boost.

So this leads me into the timing of a new iPhone launch. Because I think that Apple will want to include LTE in the next iteration of the product and because I expect LTE technology to get cheaper and more power efficient over the next six months, I think it’s very possible that an iPhone 5 with LTE could be released in June. It might be a stretch to expect a device before then. but it’s not impossible.

Still, June or July would make sense for several reasons. For one, customers who bought the iPhone 4 when it first launched would be ready for their two-year upgrade from carriers. Also, I believe that LTE carrier deployments will be a lot further along by June. and I think that the technology will have advanced enough that Apple would feel comfortable adding it in their phones.

The current implementation of LTE technology is too bulky for the iPhone’s design. but Qualcomm is expected to have an integrated LTE chip that will fit Apple’s iPhone specifications by the second quarter 2012. so new devices could be launched midyear using these chips.

Apple can’t afford to wait too long to introduce a 4G LTE version of its phone, but you must also remember that the company is typically not the first to launch devices with cutting edge network technology. the first iPhone in 2007 only operated on a 2.5G network, despite the fact that other vendors had already been making 3G devices. By 2008, when the iPhone 3G was launched, 3G network service was deployed more fully. the technology had matured a bit and Apple put it in the iPhone 3G.

The same is true today with 4G LTE. Carrier are just now building out the networks, so 4G LTE coverage is not ubiquitous. Verizon Wireless is by far the furthest along in its deployment. AT&T is moving slowly down this path. Sprint recently announced details of its plans to launch an LTE network as well. It expects to begin offering its first wave of LTE-enabled products next summer.

Of course, there’s a chance that Apple pushes the launch back a couple of months. I’ll be the first to admit that I did not expect Apple to push back the iPhone 4S launch to October. so as I mentioned in my disclaimer, I could be wrong, even though all signs for me point to a summer launch for iPhone 5.

That said, if you currently have an iPhone 3GS, and your contract has already expired, there’s nothing wrong with upgrading to the iPhone 4S now. It’s a good phone with plenty of enhancements over the 3GS version of the device. As I wrote in this column on Friday, you could sell your iPhone 4S when a new iPhone 5 comes out, whether that is in June or October 2012.

I hope that was helpful advice.

Dear Maggie,I am still confused about the unlocked iPhone 4S and using an iPhone 4S on any carrier network. If I buy an iPhone 4S now, and I use it on Verizon’s network. After my contract ends in two years, can I use that same device on Sprint? and then would I also be able to switch it to AT&T?

When I go to buy an iPhone 4S will there be phones for all three different carriers? or will I buy one iPhone 4S that can be activated on any of these networks.

Thanks, Confused in Michigan

Dear Confused in Michigan,I have some bad news for you. Even though the iPhone 4S has the exact same components and radios on all three U.S wireless operators, the phone will be locked to specific carriers via software.


Typically, the hardware differs on phones offered by different carriers. For instance, a GSM carrier wouldn’t include a CDMA radio in its device. so it would be impossible for an AT&T phone to operate on a Sprint Nextel or Verizon Wireless network, since those carriers use CMDA. but to make manufacturing easier and less expensive for Apple, it is making the iPhone 4S with the same design and components for each of the major U.S wireless carriers. the dual-mode CDMA/GSM chip means that carriers like Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, which operate on CDMA can use the same device as one made for AT&T, a GSM carrier.

In theory, this means you could buy an iPhone 4S, use it on Verizon for a couple of years and then use it on Sprint’s network or AT&T’s network later. but unfortunately, that only works in the theoretical world. Wireless carriers will do all they can to maintain control of you as a customer and to ensure that you only use a device bought for their network on their network. That’s why they each put software locks on all their devices to ensure that you can’t buy a phone from one carrier, quit that service, and use it on another carrier’s network.

This means that when Apple begins selling devices on Friday, the Verizon iPhone 4S will only operate on Verizon. and the Sprint iPhone 4S will only work on Sprint. AT&T’s iPhone 4S will only be used for AT&T.

Apple and AT&T are selling unlocked versions of the iPhone, but the unlocked version only works with AT&T or another GSM carrier, such as T-Mobile USA or overseas GSM carriers. the phone won’t have the software lock. this means that the SIM card, which is used on every GSM device to provide network access, can be popped out and replaced with another carrier’s network SIM card.

But keep in mind if you buy an unlocked iPhone 4S, T-Mobile and AT&T use different frequencies to deliver 3G and HSPA+ services. so if you use the iPhone 4S on T-Mobile, it will only operate on a 2.5G network.

Since CDMA phones used on Sprint’s and Verizon’s networks do not have SIM cards, they are much more difficult to unlock and swap for use on other networks. to unlock and switch service on a Verizon or Sprint CDMA phone, you’d have to get a software unlock code from the carrier to unlock the device. and then you would have to ask the carrier on whose network you wish to use, to activate service on that network for your iPhone 4S.

It wouldn’t be impossible to do this. and there have been instances where someone has used an unlocked CDMA phone from one carrier and activated it on another CDMA network. but it’s not common. Because the iPhone is such a popular device, it’s very unlikely that either Verizon or Sprint would allow customers to unlock and/or activate these iPhones on their networks.

Of course, I am sure that someone will figure out how to provide unlock codes and software for people wishing to circumvent the carriers. but this is not likely something that will be easy or accessible for average consumers. My colleague Kent German, section editor at CNET Reviews, said this process would likely involve several steps. he also pointed out that unlocking a phone is not the same as “jailbreaking” a device. and the software used for “jailbreaking,” which basically allows you to download apps that aren’t approved by Apple and are not in the official Apple App store, won’t necessarily unlock the device.

The bottom line is this: Even though the iPhone 4S is technically identical on all three carriers, don’t buy one from one carrier and expect to take your phone to a competing carrier if you get fed up with their service. It won’t be something that can be done easily. and you probably won’t get much help or support from either carrier.

Sorry to deliver the disappointing news. Good luck!