What we think we know about Apple’s 5G modem development plans

Apple seems on course to build its own 5G modems, but it has to do a deal with Qualcomm for now.

Apple, iPhone, iOS, 5G, mobile, smartphone, intel, Apple, qualcomm
Roman Loyola

Apple’s peace deal with Qualcomm and the subsequent exit of Intel from the modem business shows Apple wants to build its own 5G modems, but it is proving a challenging task.

Why does 5G matter?

Mobile fast bandwidth, 5G makes it possible to deploy multiple connected hardware devices and service-related solutions.

Everything from smart cities to smart power grids will make some use of 5G. And consumers will likely consume an awful lot of video, games and AR “experiences.”

Add automation and machine intelligence and there are implications for self-healing networks, proactive machine maintenance and automated cybersecurity and ultra-personalised communications.

That’s the promise, and no one in the mobile space will want to avoid this opportunity – including Apple.

What we know

Along with the Qualcomm deal, we have seen some significant changes in Apple’s 5G development staffing teams in the last few weeks:

  • Apple’s 5G chip development team joined its hardware technology group under the leadership of the company's senior vice president of hardware technologies, Johny Srouji, earlier this year. This reflects the strategic importance of the tech.
  • Apple’s previous 5G modem head, Rubén Caballero, left the company around the same time. No reason was given, but this could reflect Apple filling a known need, as Caballero’s departure will have required some notice.
  • Apple recently hired Intel’s 5G development leader, Umashankar Thyagarajan.
  • A Fast Company report claims Apple has up to 2,000 engineers working on the development of 5G modems.

It is worth observing Apple’s decision to bring development under the control of its hardware technology teams and away from its sourcing management group strongly suggests the company remains committed to developing its own modems for its smartphones.

The Intel connection

Apple’s Qualcomm détente came as a shock when it was announced, as both companies were about to take part in a multi-billion-dollar court case.

Intel subsequently quit 5G modem development for smartphones, claiming the deal between the other two firms drove that decision.

The thing is, prior to that deal Apple was reportedly intalks to purchase Intel’s modem business in a sale that fell apart with the “multiyear chipset supply” settlement between Apple and Qualcomm – though later claims claim Apple remains a “possible buyer” for Intel’s 5G development assets.

What would Apple gain by developing its own 5G modem?

Apple’s management aren’t just looking to launch 5G iPhones. They also want to ensure they are not dependent on others in order to do so.

Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips combine processor, graphics and modem capabilities on a single SOC, delivering advantages in terms of power supply and performance optimization.

Qualcomm, Ericsson, and Nokia hold most of the patents used in 5G, which makes development of new 5G chips even more complex – unfair use of those patents to control market direction was one of Apple’s big arguments in the Apple/Qualcomm case.

Apple’s own chips remain arguably the best processors you’ll find in the mobile industry, but while they do combine processor and graphics features, they don’t integrate modem capabilities.

The company’s technology teams must surely be aware of the need to combine these features on A-series chips to deliver devices that combine low power demand with high performance – essential to high quality consumer experiences.

That means Apple will be chasing intellectual property and industry relevant patents in order to even the playing field for future modem development, as well as reduce its dependence on patent licensing against others in the space.

What happens next?

Apple has reached a multi-year component supply deal with Qualcomm.

This will ensure it can introduce devices that support 5G. It is, however, doubtful the company will be happy servicing royalty payments for a company it has accused of charging extortionate fees.

Intel’s failure to deliver a 5G modem in timely fashion means Apple has had to reach the peace deal – but I very much doubt this means the company will cease searching for its own alternatives, even if that requires inventing technologies for use in future wireless standards. 5G deployment will take us through until 2023-2024 before it is complete, and bandwidth demand will grow to fit that capacity.

It is in that context that I think it is likely Apple will purchase intellectual property, gain assets, and recruit former employees from Intel’s to-be-shuttered modem development group – a process already begun when it recruited Intel’s Umashankar Thyagarajan.

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