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Calculating the cost of 5G for Apple's next iPhones

Apple Inc.'s iPhones have never come cheap, but the unique characteristics of U.S. 5G networks mean the next generation of devices could come with an even higher price tag.

The cost of Apple's flagship device has crept higher and higher in recent years, with 2019's iPhone 11 lineup ranging from starting retail prices of $699 to $1,099 depending on the model. Now, the company's highly anticipated iPhone 12, expected to debut in the second half of the year with support for next-generation 5G mobile service, will have an additional set of component costs to support the various bands of 5G spectrum. With many American consumers still on the fence about the value of 5G, analysts are divided over how much a higher price might hurt demand for Apple's new phones.

Unlike the current 4G LTE networks that all primarily rely on low and mid-band spectrum spanning from 600 MHz to 2.5 GHz, the spectrum bands for 5G service in the U.S. are far more complicated. The low- and mid-band spectrum for 5G spans from 450 MHz to 6 GHz, while some U.S. operators, led by Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc., are also using high-band millimeter-wave 5G frequencies that start at 24 GHz.

Each spectrum band has unique properties. Low-band spectrum can travel long distances and penetrate walls but has limited bandwidth. High-frequency spectrum can carry massive amounts of data at high speeds, but its shorter wavelengths mean it has trouble traveling long distances and penetrating certain surfaces.

"In essence, you are adding two types of radios — sub 6 and millimeter wave. That did not occur in the move to 3G or the move to 4G," Bob O'Donnell, president and chief analyst of the technology consulting and market research firm TECHnalysis Research LLC, said in an interview.

"So there are some inherent complexities, and therefore costs, to 5G that we didn't have before," he added.

Jeffrey Kvaal, a telecom analyst at Nomura's Instinet, estimates that supporting the new sub-6 GHz bands will add $40 to $45 to the cost of building the 2020 iPhone while adding millimeter-wave support will tack on another $30 to $35.

"This translates into an incremental $75-$125 to the retail price of the iPhone, assuming Apple holds its traditional iPhone margin structure," Kvaal said in a research note, adding that his past work on Apple has shown "the company is unwilling to compromise on margins."

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Higher prices, Kvaal warned, could be "a barrier to adoption" for new 5G iPhones.

"Consumers have shown a reticence towards expensive smartphones," he said, noting that 4G phones already allow users to "consume as much video as they would like and new 5G applications seem some distance off."

This is in line with recent research from GSMA Intelligence, the data and analysis arm of the GSM Association mobile industry group. As part of GSMA Intelligence's 2019 Consumer Survey, which polled more than 38,000 consumers across 36 countries, the group noted that while the vast majority of U.S. consumers are aware of 5G, only 28% of those surveyed said they will get a 5G phone as soon as service is available. By comparison, 46% of Chinese consumers said they intended to upgrade as soon as possible.

"A lot of times when people think of the [5G] race, they think of U.S. vendors vs. Chinese vendors or how we can get these technologies out faster … but none of that matters if consumers aren't really using them," Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence, said in an interview.

GSMA believes actual upgrade rates may come down to price.

While Kvaal expects a $75 to $125 price bump, O'Donnell said he is not sure it will be "as much as $100."

"My guess is we'll see a modest bump in the 5G iPhone price," he said, noting that lower-priced components from other manufacturers will put pressure on QUALCOMM Inc., which is designing the 5G modems for Apple's 2020 iPhones, to lower its costs.

O'Donnell and Jarich both believe it is also possible that Apple may not decide to support both sub 6 GHz and millimeter-wave spectrum in all of its 5G devices.

"I'm not sure it's a given," Jarich said, noting that outside of the U.S., "You are seeing a lot of markets where millimeter wave isn't as important for 5G."

Due to its tiny wavelengths, millimeter-wave spectrum poses challenges for deployment outside of small pockets in dense urban areas.

But O'Donnell is also not sure how much an extra $100 or so will matter when it comes to the demand for Apple's next iPhone.

"I think people who are into this and really want it are going to pay whatever it costs," he said.