One of the most popular debates regarding the iPhone 5 is whether or not it will be 4G compatible. The next generation of 4G network standards are catching on quickly here in the states, as the new technology is substantially faster than its 3G predecessor.

While several Android devices with the new technology have already been introduced, it’s widely believed that Apple’s next handset won’t have 4G capability. Multiple obstacles have folks believing that we won’t see a 4G product from Apple until next year. Is it still possible that Apple will unveil a 4G iPhone this Fall?

Recent reports have provided evidence that Apple is farther along in its 4G research than we all thought. In fact, we’ve seen proof that Apple is not only field testing 4G equipment, but it’s also installing it in its retail stores as well.

MacRumors posted more information this weekend regarding Apple’s work on LTE. The acronym stands for Long Term Evolution, and seems to be the most common 4G platform among wireless carriers. Unlike previous LTE findings, this was found in a standard developer build of iOS 5 — the same builds we’ve been using for the last month or so — so there’s already code for the technology in the new firmware. The next iPhone could be 4G then, right?

One of the main reasons people seem to be dismissing an LTE iPhone this year can be traced back to a comment made by Apple COO Tim Cook early this year during a Q&A session after a quarterly earnings call:

“The first generation of LTE chipsets force a lot of design compromises with the handset, and some of those we are just not willing to make.”

As MacRumors points out, the chipset that Apple is likely to go with is the Qualcomm MDM9615. It’s much smaller than current LTE components, and it’s expected to start being sampled by the end of the year.

With no available chipset to fit the bill, and sparse 4G coverage around the world, why on earth would Apple want to spend extra time and money developing a 4G-capable handset right now? Perhaps the answer is this simple: because it can.

Forget for a minute that Apple didn’t jump on the 3G bandwagon right away. When Apple announced the original iPhone back in 2007, it pioneered the modern smartphone. The multitouch display that was introduced had never been seen before.

Not only did it work really well, but Apple also had exclusivity on the touch panels for nearly a year before competitors got ahold of them. Why couldn’t that be the case with the new LTE chipsets?

It’s entirely feasible that Apple could have invested enough in the R&D team over at Qualcomm to speed along production on the LTE chipsets in exchange for temporary exclusivity. Apple does this kind of thing all the time.

If Steve Jobs and company are so intent on “skating to where the puck is going to be,” why would they want to wait until late 2012 to unveil a 4G-capable device?

If that’s the case, and Apple is already testing next gen LTE devices, then you have to assume that the iPhone 5 is just going to be a placeholder. But will a placeholder sell the 100 million units that are projected to sell?

Android handset makers and wireless carriers have turned 4G into a household name, and consumers are interested.

You might be asking why Apple would make a 4G iPhone now, instead of next year when the technology is more stable. But I’m wondering why the hell not.