Apple unlikely to have its own 5G modem in iPhones until 2022 or 2023

When Apple acquired the rump of Intel’s 5G modem team earlier this year, there was wild speculation that the company would design its own chip ready to be incorporated into an iPhone as early as the holiday season of 2020. A new report provides a more realistic timeframe – 2022 or even 2023.

Of course, Apple will not be starting from scratch, having acquired a product and team from Intel whose modems had been used in several high profile 5G trials and had been under development for the expected first 5G iPhone, expected in 2020. But Apple was dissatisfied with the result, to the extent that it was forced to settle its ferocious legal battle with Qualcomm and return to that modem supremo for its 4G chips – and almost certainly, its initial 5G modems too.

It always seemed unlikely, then, that if Apple were so disappointed with the Intel product, that it would be able to get it back on track in time for the fall of 2020, when it has no significant modem expertise of its own, except what it acquired from Intel. That acquisition followed Intel’s decision, in the wake of Apple dumping its design, to pull out of the business altogether (except for supporting existing customers of the division it acquired from Infineon, and which is still a top three modem supplier).

Apple will clearly want to loosen, or even cut, the ties with Qualcomm again rather than remain bound to its troublesome supplier indefinitely, but according to the report, from Fast Company, that outcome could be three or four years away. Citing a source with knowledge of the company’s plans, Apple’s 5G modem development is underway and is being led by Esin Terzioglu, a former Qualcomm executive who joined Apple in 2017.

He is still based in Qualcomm’s city of San Diego, where Apple has previously said it would open an office and employ up to 1,000 new employees, presumably with plans to poach staff from Qualcomm and its satellite companies to bolster the modem and other chip developments.

In particular, Apple may want skills in system-on-chip (SoC) integration – the tight coupling of the app processor, modem and other elements on a single chip is a particular skill of Qualcomm’s, but something Intel never fully mastered – its only handset SoC, SoFIA, was axed after only a few months when the company pulled out of the smartphone processor and SoC space in 2016.

Apple has never had the option of an SoC, because it made its own processor while buying in its modems, but with all the elements inhouse, it could design such a product. That, in turn, would be important to reduce cost and power consumption in future iPhones, especially for lower cost models as the company seeks growth in emerging markets amid a marked slowdown in iPhone sales.

If it achieves a 5G modem that meets its demanding expectations, Apple will join the other top three handset makers, Huawei and Samsung, which source at least some of their modems inhouse (Huawei with the Kirin family and Samsung with Exynos, both of them now boasting a 5G member).