Apple is reportedly investing in technology that would beam data directly from satellites to its devices -- thus skipping terrestrial 5G networks entirely. If Apple commercializes the technology, at least one analyst believes the result "could have some pretty serious implications" for the world's telecom operators.
At issue is an article from Bloomberg last month that reported Apple's Tim Cook is personally interested in a research project at the company that would use satellites to bypass terrestrial wireless networks. The publication reported that roughly a dozen Apple employees, led by former aerospace engineers Michael Trela and John Fenwick, are working on the project, and that they report to an executive under Dan Riccio, Apple's SVP of hardware engineering, who oversees the company's iPhone hardware.
Jennifer Fritzsche, an analyst with Wall Street research firm Wells Fargo, pointed out that the project would allow Apple to "essentially bypass carriers and towers which service them."
Of course, there's no guarantee that Apple will commercialize the technology, nor is it clear exactly how Apple might make use of satellite Internet connections. As Bloomberg reported, Apple is also investing in a wide range of other areas including augmented reality glasses and autonomous automobiles. Indeed, the publication noted that Apple's research and development budget increased 15% last year to a whopping $16 billion.
Internet from space
Apple of course is not the only company that is interested in the possibilities of satellite Internet. Companies like Iridium and Globalstar have struggled for years to grow their satellite Internet businesses, while a new crop of players ranging from Facebook to Amazon to SpaceX to OneWeb are in the early stages of deploying thousands of tiny, low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites that are intended to offer much faster and cheaper satellite-based Internet services than previous offerings. For example, OneWeb reported last year that it was able to clock speeds of 400Mbit/s with latency of 32 ms from its initial batch of LEO satellites.
Moveover, SpaceX's Starlink -- backed by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk -- is scheduled to launch another 60 LEO satellites this evening.
However, LEO satellites aren't the only advancement happening in the broader satellite industry. Already the US Air Force's 45th Space Wing is in the process of becoming the US Space Force, following the National Defense Authorization Act that Congress and President Trump signed in December. Further, the global wireless industry also recently voted to move forward with specifications designed to incorporate satellite signals directly into the next batch of 3GPP-approved 5G specifications, dubbed "Release 17."
And a tiny startup called Lynk Global (formerly UbiquitiLink) has been testing technology -- including with Smith Bagley, a tiny wireless network operator offering services under the Cellular One brand in East Arizona -- that could connect virtually all of the world's existing smartphones directly to a satellite.
5G iPhones coming
In the meantime, it's clear that Apple isn't eschewing 5G completely. The company is widely expected to release 5G-capable iPhones later this year. And now analysts across the industry are racing to one-up each other with their best iPhone 2020 predictions.
The latest? StreetInsider.com reported that Mehdi Hosseini, an analyst with Wall Street research Susquehanna, predicted that Apple's millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G iPhones won't hit the market until potentially early next year. He predicted that iPhones supporting 5G in spectrum bands below 6GHz would show up first, in the vendor's traditional September launch timeframe.
"The delay in the launch, according to our checks, stems from Apple's decision to in-source the Antenna-in-Package (AiP) modules instead of purchasing from the 3rd party," the analyst wrote, according to StreetInsider.com. He predicted Apple would ship a total of 60 million 5G phones in the second half of this year, but only 8 million of those would support mmWave 5G.
If this proves true, it could have significant implications for the likes of AT&T and Verizon, which have based much of their 5G strategy around mmWave spectrum. Other operators though, like those in South Korea or T-Mobile in the US, likely will be relieved to hear that Apple is moving forward quickly with 5G below 6GHz, considering that's where they are focusing their efforts.
There are currently no phones today that support 5G in both lowband and mmWave spectrum. That could change though in February; Samsung is widely expected to unveil its Galaxy S11 during a media event scheduled for Feb. 11.