Apple Has a Long Road Ahead in Designing Its Own 5G Modem Chips

Illustration Hand Holding 5G iPhone over Cityscape Credit: Shaynepplstockphoto / Shutterstock
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Apple’s capitulation to Qualcomm this week is an obvious signal that it’s going to need the behemoth chip-maker’s 5G modem chips if it wants to produce a 5G iPhone in the near future, despite its efforts to develop its own 5G modem in-house.

In fact, the six-year agreement signed by the two companies is probably the best indication of how much time Apple truly believes it will take to bring its own modem chip to market, and a new report from Bloomberg highlights just how complicated Apple’s own 5G chip ambitions may actually be.

Apple has built a reputation for talent in chip design and engineering the company’s A-series system-on-a-chip has been at the heart of every iPhone and iPad ever made, and has become key to the success of the iPhone. Apple is able to improve it in very specific ways year after year to tailor it to its own needs, such as adding its groundbreaking Neural Engine in the 2017 A11 Bionic. While other smartphones rely on processors by third-party companies like Qualcomm, Apple is cranking out chips that are dominating the market, and it goes beyond the company’s A-series chips into the S-series chips used in the Apple Watch, and the W/H-series chips that power Apple’s AirPods.

So with all of this experience, it’s dangerously easy to assume that a modem chip should be a walk in the park for Apple. The reality, however, is that modem chip engineering is considerably more sophisticated. In addition, Apple doesn’t have the same kind of lead time available, nor the background skills that it’s been able to bring to bear on its other chip projects. Modem chips require additional layers of engineering due to the wide variety of conditions that they’re expected to face in the real world across vastly different cellular networks and environmental conditions.

Modems require more layers of engineering than some other types of processors. The modem connects phones to cellular networks and lets devices browse the web, download apps and make phone calls. Getting this to operate smoothly everywhere in the world is a complex task requiring broad industry know-how that’s hard to acquire.

Bloomberg

Modem chips not only need to be engineered to work on multiple networks worldwide, but they also need to be rigorously field-tested and certified for this purpose, which requires liaising with cellular carriers and network equipment manufacturers, as well as specialized labs for recreating different network conditions. By comparison, a chip like Apple’s A-series requires very little involvement from anybody outside of Apple.

By most accounts, Apple started preliminary work on its own modem chips about a year ago, and normal industry standards suggest an almost four-year cycle to bring a chip to market — two years of development following by one and a half years of testing — and that’s considered a minimum standard for an experienced chip maker. Bloomberg notes that Apple has a couple of hundred engineers working on modems, however these same teams are also responsible for integrating third-party modem chips into current and future iPhone models. Apple is also planning to hire hundreds of additional engineers to increase its modem chip design teams.

Getting modems qualified around the world is extremely difficult. Companies gain a lot of tribal knowledge going through 2G, or 3G, or 4G. You likely will not have the experience needed to succeed without having that history.

Gus Richard, chip analyst at Northland Capital Markets

It’s perhaps telling that Intel — a company that’s been a household name in chip design for decades — recently gave up on 5G modem development, essentially ceding the market to Qualcomm, which was already ahead of the game. While there are rumours that Apple could buy some of Intel’s assets to bolster its own chip design, its a safe bet that Apple has a long road ahead of it in getting its own in-house modem chips ready, as evidenced by its relatively long-term detente with Qualcomm earlier this week — a move that flies in the face of Apple’s — and Tim Cook’s — normal strategy of becoming as self-sufficient as possible with in-house components and avoiding single-source suppliers at all costs.

Either way, these latest moves definitely put us on more certain ground that a 5G iPhone will actually materialize next year — using Qualcomm’s chips, of course — and that Apple will be able to continue to stay current in the wireless networking space until it’s ready to cast off it’s reliance on Qualcomm and stand on its own, hopefully even better, components.


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