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Making a 5G modem is super difficult, even for Apple

Its in-house 5G modem development efforts keeps running into roadblocks, with the timeline now stretching to as far as 2026.
By

Published onNovember 17, 2023

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TL;DR
  • Apple’s 5G modem development efforts have fallen further behind, with a new report mentioning a release target of late 2025-early 2026.
  • Apple wants to move away from using Qualcomm’s modems in iPhones, but its current dev efforts are lacking competitive features like mmWave support.

Qualcomm has a good stronghold on several smart components found inside of a phone. While we are all familiar with the Snapdragon SoCs that power Android flagships, Qualcomm also makes many other components used inside the phone and even across other consumer and enterprise products. Apple uses Qualcomm modems inside the iPhone, but the Cupertino firm has long desired to switch to its in-house modems. Apple may have to wait even longer, as new reports suggest that its modem plans continue to face roadblocks and delays due to technical complexity.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Apple’s multibillion-dollar effort to develop a modem chip for the iPhone has called further behind. It was reported back in September that we would see a switch from Qualcomm’s 5G modems to Apple’s 5G modems by 2025, but the release appears to have been further delayed to at least the end of 2025 or early 2026.

The report reiterates that thousands of employees have worked on the modem project within Apple since 2018, and the ~$3 trillion company is still said to be several years away from replicating Qualcomm’s success. Apple even bought Intel’s modem business for $1 billion and hired scores of other wireless tech experts, including employees from Qualcomm and MediaTek. But so far, there has been nothing to show for it in the public domain.

Apple’s 5G modem was expected to launch on the iPhone SE 2024. This modem would be a standalone chip while the company continues working on a second version integrated within the SoC. But this iPhone SE 2024 has been postponed to as late as 2026, and who knows when the integrated modem will come out.

Citing employees working on the project, the report highlights that the initial version of Apple’s modem may lag behind the competition by years. One of the first modem versions doesn’t even support mmWave, which is predominantly used by Verizon in the US.

Other difficulties faced during development are rewriting some of Intel’s code from scratch and avoiding infringing on Qualcomm’s patents while developing Apple’s tech. Apple already reportedly pays Qualcomm $9 on every iPhone to include its patented technology, and it would not be good if the new modem is found to infringe upon Qualcomm’s patents.

Apple is also said to be working on designing its own wireless and Bluetooth semiconductor. This would eventually replace Broadcom components inside the iPhone. But this project is also facing its own hiccups. It shows how many complex technologies come together to give us the modern smartphone.