iPhone 6 rumors: From NFC and VoLTE to sapphire displays

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) is hosting a media event Sept. 9 at the Flint Center for Performing Arts, near its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Although Apple is expected to unveil its first new product line since 2010 at the event--its long-rumored wearable, which many have dubbed the iWatch--the main draw is expected to be Apple's announcement of the next iteration of the iPhone, which will likely be called the iPhone 6.

Apple is expected to announce two new variants of the iPhone at the event, one with a 4.7-inch display and the other with a 5.5-inch screen (there are rumors that the 5.5-inch version will be called the iPhone 6L).

This is likely going to be the biggest iPhone launch ever. According to a July report from the Wall Street Journal, Apple asked its suppliers to produce between 70 million and 80 million units of the next iPhone by Dec. 30. Last year Apple ordered between 50 million and 60 million versions of the iPhone 5s and 5c.

As in past years, FierceWireless will be covering the iPhone launch Sept. 9. Click here for our iPhone 6: Complete Coverage special report page, which we will update before, during and after the iPhone announcement.

And to get primed for the launch next week, FierceWireless has compiled six of the most prominent iPhone 6 rumors, with a special focus on the wireless technologies that may or may not make it into the final design. Click on the specs below to learn more about each:

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Larger screen sizes of 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches
The rumor about the iPhone 6 that has been repeated most often during the past year is that Apple is working on two variants, one with a 4.7-inch diagonal screen and one with a 5.5-inch diagonal screen. The rumor mill first got churning on this aspect of the iPhone 6's design in June 2013, before the 5s and 5c were even released, when Reuters reported Apple was thinking about releasing at least two bigger iPhones in 2014, one with a 4.7-inch screen and one with a 5.7-inch screen. The Wall Street Journal reported similar rumors of testing on larger iPhone screens a month later, but a November 2013 report from Bloomberg first settled on 4.7 inches and 5.5 inches as the two display sizes. Since then, multiple reports tracking the new iPhone's production have focused on these two screen sizes. With so many reports focusing those dimensions, it appears that where there's smoke, there's fire, and the rumor is likely to pan out.

Both screen sizes would represent large jumps for Apple, which moved to a 4-inch display for the iPhone 5 in 2012 and stuck with that design for the 5s and 5c. Increasing the iPhone's screen size would bring Apple more in line with high-end devices running Android and Windows Phone. Apple has apparently been considering such a move for a while. Court documents uncovered in April as part of Apple's ongoing U.S. patent litigation with Samsung Electronics revealed that an internal Apple presentation, dated April 2013, concluded that "customers want what we don't have." The presentation noted that growth in the smartphone market is primarily coming from phones that cost less than $300 on an unsubsidized basis or phones that have screens larger than 4 inches.

Meanwhile, a larger iPhone is likely going to mean more data usage on carrier networks. Last November, The NPD Group said monthly Wi-Fi and cellular data consumption on smartphones with screens 4.5 inches and larger was 44 percent greater than on smartphones with screens less than 4.5 inches.

Sapphire display
In addition to screen sizes, one other major rumor that has sprung up about Apple's display choices for the iPhone 6 is that it will use sapphire for the screen. The rumor has been around for months but gained credence in an August Wall Street Journal article.

Rumors that Apple would incorporate sapphire into its device screens have been circulating since Apple last year bought a 1.4-million-square-foot Arizona facility from a solar-panel producer for $113 million and leased it to GT Advanced Technologies, one of the leading sapphire manufacturers in the world. As the Journal notes, in November, Apple agreed to prepay GT $578 million to update the furnaces in the factory used to make synthetic sapphire, and GT is operating the factory to produce sapphire exclusively for Apple.

Synthetic sapphire is designed to mimic the properties of naturally occurring sapphire, one of the hardest minerals on earth. Sapphire screens do not crack or scratch as easily as glass. Up until now, Apple has used Corning's super-tough Gorilla Glass for its iPhone screens, and Corning has been able to mass-produce millions of screens on short notice.

For those wondering if Apple's use of sapphire would mean that its screen would be blue like the popular gemstone, the answer is no. Sapphires used in jewelry contain trace elements of other materials like copper, magnesium or iron that are mixed with the mineral corundum, and that produces a blue color or another tint, like purple or yellow. However, synthetic sapphire comes out clear because there are no impurities introduced in the manufacturing process.

It's unclear if Apple will use sapphire in both variants of the iPhone, or just the 5.5-inch version, which is expected to be more expensive (and thus could help Apple recoup the cost of using sapphire). Also unknown is whether Apple will be able to mass-produce sapphire displays as it has with Gorilla Glass displays in the past.

Some analysts think using sapphire will cut into Apple's lucrative iPhone margins, but the company might be willing to bear that financial risk to set its products apart. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster speculated that Apple will only use sapphire on the more expensive 64 GB versions of the new iPhones as a test run to see how much demand there is. Those versions are likely to be the most expensive, which could help Apple maintain its margins.

NFC for mobile payments
Apple's addition of Near Field Communications technology in the iPhone has been a perennial rumor--FierceWireless even included it in its rumor roundup for the iPhone 5 in 2012. It wasn't added then or in 2013. Now, though, that appears to be changing.

The Information reported in July that Apple might be using NFC as part of a mobile payments scheme. Last week, Wired reported that the next iPhone would in fact have NFC support. According to a Financial Times report, Apple is working with Dutch chipset specialist NXP Semiconductors on the solution.

The main impetus behind including NFC seems to be to enable mobile payments via the iPhone. According to Bloomberg, Apple has struck deals with Visa, MasterCard and American Express for its mobile payments program.

Android, Windows Phone and other platforms have supported NFC for years, but Apple could potentially galvanize adoption and push more retailers to install point of sale terminals that would let customers swipe and pay via NFC, especially in the United States. Only half of U.S. smartphones are equipped with NFC today, according to Jackdaw Research estimates cited by the FT.

Voice over LTE
Apple has traditionally been a laggard in adopting new wireless technologies, but the next iPhone may support Voice over LTE. In late July, during his company's second-quarter earnings conference call, Mavenir Systems CEO Pardeep Kohli gave a couple of shout-outs to Apple, citing the importance of the vendor's support for operator-enabled VoIP services in its upcoming products, including the iPhone 6, which Kohli said will support VoLTE.

However, Kohli later clarified after the company's earnings call that he has no direct, insider information on Apple's forthcoming products, including the next iPhone.

Meanwhile, there have been further indications that Apple is preparing to include the technology in upcoming devices--if not now, then sometime in the near future. Light Reading dug up a number of Apple job openings that indicated that the Cupertino, Calif., company is moving aggressively to support VoLTE and other voice-over-IP (VoIP) technologies in future iOS products. For example, a job posting put up on the Apple website Aug. 14 seeks a cellular-systems protocol engineer "to help develop our next generation of iOS products." Qualifications for the job include having at least three years of hands-on experience with wireless technologies, including VoLTE and IMS.

VoLTE, is starting to take off in a big way in the U.S. Verizon Wireless will launch its Voice over LTE service on a nationwide basis sometime in the next few weeks, T-Mobile US currently offers VoLTE service across its LTE footprint, which covers 235 million POPs, and AT&T Mobility has pledged to expand its VoLTE deployments beyond the Midwest.

Apple has only confirmed it will support Wi-Fi calling, also termed voice over Wi-Fi (VoWiFi), in iOS 8, its latest operating system, which is expected to be used in the iPhone 6. T-Mobile US has confirmed it will support VoWiFi for iOS 8, but other U.S. carriers have remained mum on the topic.

LTE Band 41 support
A quick perusal of the technical specifications of the iPhone 5s reveals that, through different variants, the device supports 17 different LTE bands around the world. Absent from the list is LTE Band 41, in the 2.5 GHz range. That will likely change with the iPhone 6 for one big reason: China Mobile, the world's largest carrier by subscribers, now supports the iPhone.

China Mobile began selling the iPhone s and 5c in January, and uses the 2.5 GHz band for its TD-LTE service. As of the end of June, China Mobile had 790 million total subscribers, including close to 14 million 4G LTE customers, which grew to 20 million at the end of July. China Mobile has built 410,000 base stations for its TD-LTE service, covering more than 300 cities, and smaller rivals China Unicom and China Telecom are racing to catch up. Notably, both also use 2.5 GHz spectrum for their TD-LTE service.

Tapping into that customer base should give Apple enough incentive to add support for 2.5 GHz spectrum to some variants of the iPhone. That would be a major boon for Sprint, which uses 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz spectrum for its tri-band Spark LTE service. 2.5 GHz spectrum provides faster speeds and capacity and Sprint is banking on that to set its network apart. It's not clear that the iPhone 6 will support carrier aggregation for 2.5 GHz spectrum, which would be a major win for Sprint, but getting 2.5 GHz support at all would be a major first step.

A faster LTE modem
Apple's iPhone 6 might not just be adding more LTE bands, it could be adding a faster LTE modem. According a June VentureBeat report, the device will contain a Category 6 LTE radio that supports theoretical peak downlink speeds of up to 300 Mbps. The iPhone 5s and 5c have Cat 3 LTE radios, which can support theoretical peak downlink speeds of up to 100 Mbps. Adding in Cat 6 would place the iPhone 6 alongside the fastest LTE smartphones out in the market, including the Samsung Galaxy Alpha.

However, as CNET recently noted, a Weibo post from Chinese Apple repair firm Geekbar claimed the next iPhone will sport Qualcomm's Category 4 LTE MDM9625 modem, which dates back 2012 and offers peak downlink speeds of up to 150 Mbps and support for LTE Advanced. Most LTE networks in service around the world today do not produce regular speeds of 100 Mbps, but compatible modems can grant devices the capability to do so if carriers have enough spectrum and network capacity to deliver those speeds to customers. Faster LTE speeds on the iPhone are likely going to lead to more data usage. In any event, expect support for a faster LTE modem for the iPhone 6.

iPhone 6 rumors: From NFC and VoLTE to sapphire displays
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