After buying Intel’s 5G modem business earlier this year, Apple is wasting no time building its own 5G modem for the iPhone.
The company is pushing to have its modem in iPhones by 2022, a very aggressive timeline given all the development, testing, and certification work involved, a source with knowledge of the company’s plans said.
For now, Apple is getting its iPhone modems from Qualcomm, after the two companies dropped their legal squabbling and made up in April. Qualcomm will provide the modem for the first 5G iPhone next year.
But given their past disputes, Apple and Qualcomm have an uneasy relationship, and Apple is happiest when it’s designing its own chips. That may be part of the reason Apple management is leaning on its modem group in San Diego (also home, not coincidentally, to Qualcomm) to finish the new Apple 5G modem sooner rather than later.
It won’t be easy. In fact, bringing a new modem to the finish line in two years is really pushing it, my source said. After all the design work is done, and the fabrication of the chips themselves is underway, an arduous testing and certification process still awaits.
Apple will have to put the modem through network optimization testing to make sure it plays nice with the carriers’ wireless networks. The modem must be tested to ensure compliance with global standards, and undergo another battery of tests to satisfy FCC requirements.
Apple has never produced a modem of its own before, so some of the people involved with the initiative may not fully understand how long it takes, said my source, who believes 2023 may be a more realistic completion date.
Starting with the iPhone 7 and ending last year, Intel had provided modems for iPhones. But the Apple/Intel relationship had become strained, with Intel missing development deadlines and Apple demanding priority treatment. Intel finally gave up on producing modems last spring, and then sold the whole business (including people, equipment, and modem patents) to Apple for an estimated $1 billion. Apple will likely base its modem design on those patents.
Modem baked in
Part of the reason Apple began working with Intel on modems in the first place was that it hoped to create a “system on a chip” design, where an Intel modem would be integrated into a single chip with Apple’s applications processor and other chips. Such tight integration would yield dividends in modem speed and power efficiency.
Apple’s work with Intel never got that far. But now that Apple essentially owns the Intel modem technology it will very likely move toward baking the new 5G modem into an Apple SoC.
In fact, the man who our source says is likely leading the 5G modem development at Apple, a rock star RF engineer named Esin Terzioglu, has a title that suggests Apple’s plans—wireless SoC lead. In 2017, Terzioglu came to Apple from Qualcomm, where he was VP of Engineering.
Terzioglu was very cordial when I contacted him, but said he couldn’t discuss his work at Apple.
The SoC integration may not happen right away, my source says. Given the tight timeframe for delivering a modem in 2022, Apple may choose to make its first 5G modem a stand-alone chip, and then integrate it into an SoC the following year.
Apple responded to my email about this story, but had no comment.