Apple’s decisions about the technologies in its new iPhones will both expand and limit how owners can connect to popular wireless providers, creating winners and losers among those carriers and their suppliers.
The modem chips in the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X play a big role in who comes out ahead. So does the wireless spectrum bands and wireless transmission technologies that are included in the devices.
Like with its phones that debuted last year, Apple is thought to be splitting its modem business between Qualcomm and Intel. But the two chip giants don’t include the same features in their latest modems—analysts say Qualcomm currently has more advanced chips.
That’s why iPhones designed for AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks won’t work on Sprint and Verizon’s networks, for example. The Intel chips certain iPhones don’t include an older needed technology, known as CDMA, that Qualcomm brought to market and therefore aren’t fully compatible with the networks run by Sprint and Verizon.
Qualcomm chips have other advantages, like the use of multiple antennas to speed data transfers, but last year, Apple even limited some of those features so that iPhones with Intel chips wouldn’t be seen as inferior.
That may be happening again, according to analyst Walt Piecyk of BTIG Research. He notes that unlike Android phone makers using Qualcomm’s current chips, Apple did not tout the iPhone’s ability to reach gigabit-per-second download speeds. Since Intel’s (INTC) current modem chip can’t hit that speed, Apple failing to mention the capability in Qualcomm chips is a symbolic win for Intel, he says.
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Another big winner from the new iPhones may be Dish Network. The satellite TV service also owns a lot of wireless spectrum licenses, but in bands that haven’t been commonly used by phones. After ignoring it last year, however, Apple made its phones announced on Tuesday compatible with Band 66, which covers the rights Dish owns as well as rights licenses several carriers bought at a 2015 government auction. Dish (DISH) isn’t planning to build a phone network anytime soon, but its rights become more valuable if they become more commonly used, Piecyk says. “This is particularly good for Dish, which will see an ecosystem develop for a large block of its vacant spectrum,” Piecyk noted in a report on Wednesday.
What about losers? Apple’s decision to turn off features in Qualcomm’s (QCOM) modems certainly hurts Qualcomm. A similar move involving last year’s iPhone forms one of the legal claims the chipmaker filed against Apple in April. Apple sued Qualcomm in January, charging that the chipmaker was abusing a dominant market position to overcharge for royalties. Qualcomm said it had done nothing wrong and charged Apple with intentionally harming its business by, among other things, crippling some of its modem features in iPhones.
T-Mobile (TMUS) and AT&T (T) also lost out when bands of spectrum they own were left off the new iPhones. T-Mobile just spent $8 billion on spectrum in the 600 MHz band, but band 71, which includes that swath, isn’tcompatible with the new iPhones. So too band 14, which includes airwaves that AT&T acquired in its contract to build the government first responder network known as FirstNet.
With its new phones, Apple also appears to be ignoring this year a standard being pushed by Sprint (S) called High Performance User Equipment, or HPU-E, that let devices over longer distances. Sprint’s airwaves don’t cover the country as broadly as competitors” networks, but the carrier is hoping HPU-E will help it cover more territory. But that requires manufacturers to build HPU-E features into their phones and few have so far.
And Apple (AAPL) did not include technology for using unlicensed spectrum for phone connectivity known as LTE-U and License Assisted Access, or LAA. Several carriers are experimenting with those bands as ways to add capacity to their increasingly crowded networks. “Verizon has been particularly vocal about this as an alternative capacity source,” Piecyk noted, adding his suggested solution for the largest carrier: “We think they should buy Dish.”
Still, despite all the moves in the 2017 iPhones, Apple doesn’t control the entire market and other manufacturers are including some of the overlooked bands and features. And, of course, Apple is likely to introduce new iPhones in 2018.