Toggle Dark Mode
Although we haven’t heard much news lately about Apple’s plans to build its own first-party 5G modem chips, they’re clearly underway, and if a recent analyst report is accurate, we might see Apple kicking Qualcomm to the curb soon.
Even though the iPhone is ultimately powered by Apple’s own A-series silicon chips, the company has long relied on third-party suppliers for the chips that drive the cellular technology inside them. During the 4G/LTE years, those came jointly from both Qualcomm and Intel. However, as Apple began planning for its first 5G iPhone a couple of years ago, things started to get a bit more complicated.
First, Apple got into a very big and public spat with Qualcomm, accusing them of monopolistic business practices, unfair control, and excessive royalties. Not surprisingly, around the same time, Apple began relying more heavily on Intel to provide its 4G/LTE chips, while also ramping up efforts to produce its own 5G modem chips.
As the fight with Qualcomm continued to heat up, however, it also became clear that Apple was nowhere near having its own 5G modem chips ready. On top of that, since Intel’s early 5G chips just weren’t cutting it, Apple found itself in the unenviable position of having to broker a truce with Qualcomm if it had any chance at all of releasing a 5G-capable iPhone before 2025.
However, not long after Apple and Qualcomm came to terms, Intel exited the 5G modem business entirely, giving Apple the opportunity to gobble it up at a discount; Apple paid around $4.5 billion to settle with Qualcomm, but it only cost it $1 billion to acquire all the relevant portions of Intel’s 5G business, including 2,200 Intel engineers and several thousand smartphone patents.
There’s no doubt that this gave Apple a considerable shot in the arm in its own 5G modem chip development, leading to speculation that the 2022 iPhone could be the first to feature Apple’s own 5G modem chips — three years earlier than previously estimated.
Certainly, there’s no doubt that Apple is rushing to get its own modem chips ready, since this would both align with its desire to build as much of its own silicon as possible, but it’s also fair to say it doesn’t want to have to rely on Qualcomm for any longer than it absolutely has to. There’s no doubt that the truce between the two companies is an uneasy one, but there’s also no way we’d have the 5G iPhone 12 right now had Apple not surrendered in its fight against the behemoth chipmaker.
Unfortunately, it sounds like 2022 may still be a bit optimistic. A new investors note from veteran Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo (shared by MacRumors) suggests that Apple’s own 5G chip won’t be arriving until 2023, “at the earliest.” Until then, Apple will still be relying on Qualcomm to supply all the modem chips for its 2021 and 2022 5G iPhones.
As Kuo notes, however, this will be especially bad news for Qualcomm, which will feel the sting of losing Apple’s business.
As Android sales in the high-end 5G phone market are sluggish, Qualcomm will be forced to compete for more orders in the low-end market to compensate for Apple’s order loss. When the supply constraints improve, MediaTek and Qualcomm will have less bargaining power over brands, resulting in significantly higher competitive pressure in the mid-to low- end market.Ming-Chi Kuo
Kuo’s comments also line up with an earlier report from analysts at Barclays, who have also pegged 2023 as the year of the Apple 5G modem.
What This Means
Apple has already proven that it knows how to design great chips. The A-series chips in its iPhones and iPads have been legendary for years, and the new M1 chip that powers its entry-level Macs and latest iPad Pro models is both a work of art and a remarkable feat of engineering that leaves everything else in the dust — and it’s just the beginning.
So, there’s no reason to believe that Apple won’t be bringing this same expertise to its first 5G modem chip. Even though a modem chip is a slightly different beast than a CPU/SoC, the chip engineering principles are the same, and Apple has lots of expertise in that area.
More importantly, Qualcomm’s chips are, by necessity, a one-size-fits-all solution, since the same chips are used for iPhones, a whole variety of Android phones, and even some tablets. Apple’s 5G modem chip, on the other hand, would be lovingly purpose-built to work best in an iPhone, and do exactly what the iPhone and iOS need it to do.
That will translate to better reliability, increased energy efficiency, and almost certainly faster speeds. One thing that Apple is particularly skilled at is producing low-power chips, so it’s quite likely you’ll finally be able to zip along at true 5G speeds without burning through your battery life.
Apple’s own 5G modem chips are also guaranteed to be much less expensive of a solution than licensing chips from Qualcomm. Remember that Apple was already fighting with Qualcomm over what it claimed were excessive royalties, but when it was forced to settle with Qualcomm, Apple basically had to give in and surrender to those exorbitant licensing fees.
While Apple’s switch to its own 5G modem chips likely won’t result in a drop in the 2023 iPhone lineup, it will give Apple room to pack in other newer and better improvements without needing to increase prices.
Plus, Apple’s move toward using its own 5G modem chips is just the start, as we also know the company is already working on 6G cellular tech for 2030, and it’s safe to say that building its own chips for that will give the iPhone an even greater advantage when that comes to fruition.
[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.]