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While it’s been overshadowed by Apple’s revolutionary new M1 series chip designs, the company hasn’t stopped working on developing its own 5G modem chip behind the scenes, and it’s expected to be ready relatively soon.
With the first 5G-capable iPhone now over a year behind us, it’s easy to forget that the Qualcomm 5G modem chips Apple was forced to use to deliver a 5G iPhone came at a very high cost, both in raw dollars and humility.
It may feel like a lifetime ago in internet time, but it’s only been a little over two years since Apple brokered a truce with Qualcomm to settle a pretty intense ongoing legal battle. Apple pushed back hard against Qualcomm over what it considered monopolistic business practices, unfair control, and excessive royalties.
Apple was doing its best to avoid further business with Qualcomm, hoping to rely on Intel to provide viable 5G modem chips while ramping up efforts to design its own in-house chips.
Unfortunately, Intel pulled the rug out from underneath Apple when it entirely exited the 5G modem business. This forced Apple to shell out $4.5 billion to settle things up with Qualcomm or risk waiting until 2025 to release a 5G-capable iPhone with its own chips. The fact of the matter is that designing modem chips is complex work.
The one silver lining for Apple, however, is that it was basically able to acquire Intel’s 5G modem business at fire-sale prices. Apple paid only $1 billion to pick up everything it needed to bolster its own 5G modem chip efforts, including 2,200 Intel engineers and several thousand smartphone patents.
It’s fair to say that the influx of Intel resources gave Apple a pretty big boost in its 5G modem chip development, with some analysts suggesting we could see Apple-made 5G modem chips as soon as 2022. That was considered a pretty aggressive timeline, and Apple was said to be “hustling” to make it happen, so most folks have since settled on the 2023 “iPhone 15” as a more likely time of arrival. Either way, that’s still 2–3 years ahead of when Apple was originally expected to have its own modem chips ready, and it’s also notable that Apple’s truce with Qualcomm includes a six-year licensing deal.
A Standalone 5G Modem
The incredible chip engineering feats that Apple has accomplished with the M1 has led to some speculation that the company could integrate the 5G modem into a future A-series chip.
This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, considering that Qualcomm does the same with its Snapdragon SoCs, and Apple’s M1 chips are even more sophisticated than that. However, industry sources say this isn’t the plan.
According to a paywalled DigiTimes report shared by MacRumors, Apple is still on track to put its own 5G modem chip into the 2023 “iPhone 15,” but this won’t be part of the “A17” chip.
The report doesn’t say why Apple is going in this direction, but it could simply be a matter of project management timelines. Apple almost certainly has a separate team working on its 5G modem chip. Making it a standalone chip would allow it to ship as soon as it’s ready, rather than taking the extra time necessary to integrate it into an A-series chip. Further, Apple’s A-series chips are often used in non-cellular devices such as the iPad, and it may not be cost-effective to incorporate a 5G modem chip into every device right away.
It’s also notable that the 2023 timeline appears to be backed up by Qualcomm, which told investors this week that it’s expecting to supply a mere 20 percent of Apple’s modem chips in 2023. Since there’s no other viable 5G modem chipmaker in the industry right now, the only explanation is that Apple plans to come up with the other 80 percent on its own. Apple’s 5G modem chips will likely be used for all of its flagship devices, while Qualcomm chips will still be used for older iPhones and iPads, or perhaps entry-level devices like the iPhone SE.
[The information provided in this article has NOT been confirmed by Apple and may be speculation. Provided details may not be factual. Take all rumors, tech or otherwise, with a grain of salt.]