Apple 5G modems on the 2-year horizon – report

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By acquiring Intel’s IP and modem business, Apple has a running start on chipsets, but Qualcomm has been working on 5G modems for years. (Getty Images)

Reports this week had one analyst pegging Apple’s 5G iPhone modem launch in 2023 at the earliest, with implications for its current 5G smartphone chip supplier Qualcomm.

Flagging the prediction, MacRumors cited an investor note from Apple analyst at TF International Securities Ming-Chi Kuo. It follows reports in December that the iPhone-maker had started work on its own in-house modem.

Apple moving to its own in-house 5G components at some point is not an unexpected move, having purchased Intel’s 5G smartphone modem business in 2019.

Given the acquisition, Anshel Sag, senior analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, told Fierce that the 2023 timeline is in the realm of what he would’ve expected Apple to accomplish within a 3-5 year horizon, but believes 2024 is more likely for an Apple modem.

At that point, “5G will be far more commoditized and ubiquitous than it is today, which lowers the bar to entry for a newer entrant like Apple” Sag said via email.

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The $1 billion Intel deal came after Apple and Qualcomm settled litigation involving license royalty disputes, which resulted in a multi-year supply deal for modems and a six-year licensing agreement.

The 2023 timeframe sounds like a good prediction for when Apple could produce its own integrated baseband processor and transceiver, according to IDC Research Director Phil Solis, who focuses on connectivity and smartphone semiconductors, as it sits in the middle of the 2021-2025 window.

According to MacRumors, Kuo believes it could force Qualcomm to compete in the low-end market to compensate for the loss of Apple.

While Qualcomm would lose the discrete modem business from Apple, the chip giant knows it’s coming, Solis noted. At the same time Qualcomm is growing revenue in the RF business “which is something they barely played in years back.” Now it’s selling a modem-to-antenna solution that bundles RF components with integrated baseband processor and has designs to capture share of the RF Front End (RFFE) market.  

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By acquiring Intel’s IP and modem business, Apple has a running start on chipsets, but Qualcomm has been working on 5G modems for years.

“Since Apple was already working with existing IP and engineering teams, it didn’t have to completely start anew, however these things still take many years to develop and test,” Sag said, adding he’s seen an aggressive uptick in hiring this year for Apple modem jobs in San Diego.

Could Apple 5G modems compete with Qualcomm tech?

“It’s possible, if Apple throws enough money at it,” Solis said, adding that Qualcomm is usually the most advanced in terms of features and quality of their modems. “Apple should be able to at least be in the ballpark.”

Sag also thinks Apple will likely be close, but isn’t certain the modems can necessarily match the peak of what Qualcomm’s chipsets can deliver.

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“Unfortunately for them, Qualcomm is going to continue to innovate and build new technologies into its modems that continue to give it the edge on the rest of the industry,” Sag said. “Qualcomm’s customers are willing to pay for that edge against Apple and those utilizing Qualcomm’s competitors.”

He also doesn’t believe Apple will necessarily try to have the fastest modem or compete directly with Qualcomm, instead expecting the iPhone-maker to “take the approach that it did with Intel so far as getting the features and performance it wants.”

Apple’s iPhone 13 is rumored to feature Qualcomm’s X60 5G modem, while the iPhone 12 lineup used the X55. Qualcomm’s fourth-generation X65 5G modem-to-RF system debuted earlier this year and can aggregate low-, mid-, and high-bands across key global 5G spectrum.

RELATED: Qualcomm touts 5G data calls using dual connectivity

Apple will definitely need to support 3GPP Release 16 (if not 17 or 18 features) by 2023-2024, Sag said. And it’s fair to assume standalone 5G and FDD/TDD carrier aggregation “will be absolute must-haves by then.”

mmWave challenge

When Apple launched its first 5G iPhone last year, support for millimeter wave spectrum was front and center.

While a 5G modem from Apple is inevitable, to Solis the question is whether Apple will have its own mmWave antenna modules at the same time. He doesn’t see the company backing off from mmWave capabilities in future iPhone generations, particularly in the U.S. market.

According to Qualcomm data, more than 150 operators around the world are investing in mmWave.

Millimeter wave “is the part that would be the trickiest for Apple,” he said, although those will be separate components from the integrated baseband processor. Solis noted all current 5G smartphones with mmWave support use modules from Qualcomm (with MediaTek mmWave support expected in 2022 devices).

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Notably, Apple is different in that the iPhone-maker is using Qualcomm 5G mmWave chips but going to Shanghai-based USI to make mmWave modules.

“It probably gives [Apple] some insight and will help them to make their own modules,” Solis said.

Ultimately, by the time an in-house integrated baseband processor is in Apple’s SoC, he said, the company may also have its own mmWave modules or may continue to buy them from Qualcomm or another third-party.