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Will the iPad 3 use LTE?

Almost everyone seems to believe that the next iPad, rumoured to be being launched in early March, will have 4G connectivity, in the shape of LTE. When the Wall Street Journal is reporting it, that usually means it’s pretty likely.

However, I actually have my doubts. To my mind, there’s more than a few reasons why Apple is unlikely to make the leap to LTE for this iPad, and will hold off until the next one. I have no inside info, and don’t normally make predictions, but something about this rumour doesn’t quite make sense given the way that Apple tends to work.

In favour of LTE

Of course, LTE offers significantly higher speeds than 3G. But the big drawback is battery life: almost everyone who has an LTE phone ends up charging it multiple times a day.

However, the iPad is not a phone. Not only does it have a bigger battery, but its use of data over mobile networks is different. Most iPads spend much of their time tethered to WiFi networks, rather than being used when out and about on mobile. With smart software, you could probably build an LTE-equipped tablet of iPad size without getting hit hard on battery life.

Against LTE

Implementing LTE now would, though, would be something of a departure for Apple, for several reasons. First is that LTE chipsets remain expensive compared to those for 3G. Although Apple doesn’t scrimp on the quality of its components, they don’t waste money. Given that its price points tend to be fixed, it builds to a strict budget which forces designers and engineers to balance technology with cost.

Second, though, is the spread of LTE. At present, there are 31 countries with LTE deployed. In many of these countries, that deployment is either experimental or extremely limited, which means it’s only available in large, major cities.

Compare that with GSM. Apple currently ships the GSM iPhone in more than 70 countries, with more in the pipeline.

Of course, Apple could simply ship an LTE iPad which then stepped down to 3G when LTE wasn’t available. And, if LTE were widespread in the largest markets, Apple might do that.

But it’s not. Even within the US, LTE coverage is patchy – something that you’d probably not get if you only read journalists based in the Bay Area. Some major markets, such as the UK and France (combined population: 127 million affluent consumers) have no LTE available at all. And remember that 62% of Apple’s sales are “international” (ie not in the US) now, and the company clearly aims to grow that percentage over time. China, the biggest potential market for iPads of the lot, has no LTE.

Apple doesn’t do promises. Shipping an LTE iPad to consumers who can’t make use of that feature, on the promise that when (if) their local phone company turns on LTE they’ll get super-fast speed doesn’t sound like an Apple-ish thing to do.

The only way I’d see that happening would be if they knew that LTE was a handful of months away from widespread adoption, and that’s not happening. Otherwise, you’re giving the majority of your customers a feature that they can’t use yet, but which will magically turn on for them down the line. And when that feature does turn on, in six months or two years, it’ll be like they’ve got an upgraded iPad – something that’s bound to be a disincentive to them actually buying a new, upgraded iPad.

Of course, come 2013, when LTE is likely to be more widely available in the US and be in place across phone networks worldwide, an LTE iPad makes complete sense. And I have little doubt that the iPad 4, which will probably hit the market in the first half of next year, will have LTE: the timing will just be right.

But until then, I’d bet against LTE. While other companies would certainly rush an LTE tablet to market (and have), based on its history it’s just not the kind of move that Apple would make.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=531281973 Jonny Rocket

    Ian I agree with you almost totally — LTE really isn’t ready for prime time in a unified product yet, and in the UK I think we’re waiting until 2013 earliest for LTE roll-outs. I can imagine Apple might offer an LTE-enabled iPad model, however, in the same way as it offers 3G. Partly because in the US people have convinced themselves they need it (mass psychosis).

  • http://stefpause.com/ Stef Pause

    I’m not sure that your reasoning on chip cost is correct. The numbers you cite are from a teardown of a phone last year in July, which is a good way back in tech time. Since then, the designs of the Qualcomm MDM9600 has no doubt been improved upon, and hopefully the per-unit prices decreased on the newer, better chips.

    Indeed, the new hotness as far as 2nd gen LTE chips from Qualcomm are the MDM9615 and MDM9215, which arrived on schedule in the 1st quarter of this year – the timing is crucial. Here’s the press release from… yesterday :)

    Samples were projected to have been available Q4 2011, and given the above news it’s probable that they were:

    So it becomes about whether Apple get LTE thrown in as part of a newer single-chip package, along with the improvements of all the other tech in this chip, vs. the saving they’d make by going for a similar chip without LTE. Also, remember that the 3G iPad 2 had different chips in America, so they’ll save some money by using a single-chip design. If the price difference isn’t that great, which I suspect it may not be, then the company may well have gone for the LTE-capable chip. That’s pure speculation, of course, I don’t know enough about chip pricing to make the call with any certainly. But I think it’s reasonable conjecture.

    Assuming the above is true, and that Apple can get the chips for the same or very near cost, do the other arguments still hold as much water? I’d say not. The chip falls back to HSPA+ and EV-DO, so LTE availability/coverage isn’t so much on an issue – it’s a bonus if you get it, but fine if you don’t. As Jonny says, the LTE propaganda in America is strong, so it may be enough of a perceived selling point, even if Apple doesn’t do promises.

    The question of battery life still remains, but the MDM9615 uses a 28nm process so should be considerably more efficient than the older 45nm MDM6600. All the power issues we’ve heard of are with 1st gen LTE chips, hopefully the 2nd gen technology has vastly improved in this regard.

    If cost and power usage are both acceptable then I can’t see why Apple wouldn’t ship with an LTE chip, so I’m with the WSJ on this one.

  • http://www.panoramaphotographer.com/ thatkeith

    Betteridge’s Law strikes again!

  • http://twitter.com/holgate Nick Sweeney

    Hm. I’m more ambivalent now than I was before, having initially been in the ‘no way’ column. It’s hard to know the proportion of 3G vs WiFi iPads being made, especially for the upcoming launch, but gossip sites suggested there were slightly more iPad 2s being made with mobile connectivity. That dual product line may allow Apple greater freedom to push the technology on the mobile version, without having it affect the WiFi-only iPad, i.e. the ‘home iPad’. You won’t see the design separation that now exists between the iPhone and iPod touch, but you may see a willingness to give the frequent-flyers and road-warriors the latest, greatest mobile connectivity — at a premium, but one paid by their employers or expensed.

    Apple might not do promises, but I think it also has more wiggle-room here than, say, with core OS updates or battery life: plenty of iPhone 3G users in the US had to make do with EDGE while AT&T dawdled on expanding its network. That said, the holder of the promise there was more obvious: it was the people who made you sign the two-year contract and sent you the exorbitant monthly bills. For the iPad’s pricing model, it’s still likely that users will blame the provider first, but it’s not quite so clear-cut.

    I agree on the thrust of your argument, though, which is that American tech journalists tend to be lulled into thinking that their highly idiosyncratic mobile market is a) representative of the world in general; b) the deciding factor in Apple’s decisions on how to spec their mobile devices. And US advertising right now is all LTE, all the time.