It feels like every time a new iPhone launches or a new version of iOS comes out, some percentage of people who had issues with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or cellular networking get their problems solved, and some percentage who didn’t start having issues for the first time. That’s probably a reflection of just how complex modern radios and carriers are, and all of our setups that go along with them.
But, as we move to mesh networks, Gigabit LTE and 5G, Bluetooth 5.0 and AirPlay 2, these systems can’t just keep getting faster and more complicated. They need to get easier and more absolutely, point final, more reliable.
For cellular, it seems like primarily Verizon customers in the U.S. are seeing fewer bars in fringe places — those areas where getting and keeping a signal is already a challenge.
The prevailing theory is that Apple has gone all-in on Intel modems this year where previously they used a mix of Qualcomm modems for legacy CDMA carriers, namely Verizon and Sprint, and Intel for GSM carriers, namely AT&T, T-Mobile, and most of the rest of the world.
Infineon, the original iPhone modem supplier, was bought by Intel in 2011 and, since then, Intel has desperately been trying to become competitive with Qualcomm, including and especially for Apple’s business.
I guess they figure if they can’t get their x86 chips anywhere near Apple’s A-Series or the iPhone, their modems are better than nothing…
The problem is, Qualcomm is near predatory in its business practices. So much so, it’s been investigated by multiple jurisdictions. You see, Qualcomm’s business isn’t really chips. It’s patents. And while, most of the time, if you want your patents to become part of an international standard, you have to agree to license those patents under FRAND — fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory — terms, Qualcomm has managed to keep a lot of key wireless patents at a premium.
It’s Qualcomm’s contention that radios are so valuable, device makers including but not limited to Apple, should pay not just for the parts but a percentage of revenue — some say retail, not just wholesale — for the privilege of using them.
I mean, good for Qualcomm. You go. Get yours. It’s ultimately short-sighted and unsustainable — cameras and other components are arguably just as important these days, imagine if 9 different vendors all wanted 20% of retail each… let the patent lawyers do the math on that — but it makes both courts and customers cranky in the extreme.
It’s led to vicious legal battles between Qualcomm and, among others, Apple. In this specific case, with Apple accusing Qualcomm of price gouging and Qualcomm accusing Apple of, and I kid you not, ratting them out to the feds and sharing trade secrets with Intel.
Now, all of that is Apple’s and Qualcomm’s problem. None of it should affect us in any way. But, since Apple wants nothing to do with Qualcomm right now, it looks like everyone is getting Intel modems instead.
Apple went so far as to destroy the x-axis symmetry on iPhone XS and iPhone XS plus in a way we haven’t seen since the days of the headphone jack in order to add extra antenna for 4×4 MIMO in order to provide the best, most flexible reception possible.
If you were on AT&T or T-Mobile, the good news is the new antenna in iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max should work even better for you.
Of course, a lot can depend on your precise position relative to the tower and everything from your case to your walls to the weather in between, because radio science is still terrible and demands sacrifices for every gain.
If you were on Verizon or Sprint, switching to a new modem might be causing you some pain. My strong hunch is Apple and the carriers will be pushing out updates in the near future that, based on all the data they’ve seen to date, fine-tunes everything and fixes the vast majority of problems.
In the meantime, if nothing is working for you and it’s driving you out of your frequency-ed mind, here are a few things you can try:
Toggle Airplane mode on-and-off, just to get the radio to re-connect and hopefully grab a better signal.
Toggle LTE on-and-off in Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options, if you don’t want to lose your connection but want to try for a better LTE connection, or even stick with 3G in an area where LTE just won’t work.
If you don’t mind escalating:
Go to Settings > General > Reset and reset network settings. It’s a bit of a pain but it can give your new modem a clean new start.
And, the nuclear option:
Wipe everything and set up as a new iPhone. That’s an incredible pain in the apps, even in the era where almost everything just syncs back, but it can knock out problems like nothing else can.
And I should note, wacky as it may sound, doing a restore over iTunes from your PC could help where on-device can’t.
Same with the WI-Fi, which mostly seems to be suffering from an over-eagerness to jump on 2.4 Ghz networks instead of the generally more reliable 5 Ghz networks. If that’s happening to you, and you don’t need the 2.4 GHz part of your network, you can typically toggle it off in your router settings and force your iPhone to do the right thing — at least when it’s on a network you control. If you need 2.4 Ghz for legacy devices or you’re on networks you can’t control, you can try some of the same trouble shooting steps I outlined above, starting with:
Go to Settings > Wi-Fi, and simply forgetting the network and adding it back
Then escalating up to resetting the network settings or doing a clean install, painful as it is.
Again, we go through this with every new phone and every new update, so it’s nothing new. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. It makes it even more.
Why we can’t just get machine learning algorithms that chew through massive crowd-sourced data sets to constantly real-time tune all of our wireless connections, all of the time, I don’t know. But I want them. Almost enough that I don’t really care if it kicks off Skynet.
These problems likely only affect a small percentage of people. But, at iPhone scale, there’s really no such thing. Every percentage is huge.
If you’re one of those people and if any of the suggestions I made helped mitigate or fix the issue for you, or if something else did instead. And if you’re not having any problems, let me know how your iPhone XS or iPhone XS signal is doing and if it is faster and in more places.
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