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February 22, 2024

Apple Reportedly Giving Up on Making Custom 5G Modem

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Nov 29, 2023

Conflicting information causes confusion over critical iPhone component

Apple is reportedly planning to discontinue efforts to develop its own custom 5G modem chip for iPhones, according to a sketchy rumor originating from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. While multiple outlets are reporting this possibility based on Kuo’s claim, there is conflicting information from other sources causing widespread confusion over the fate of Apple’s modem project.

Kuo has asserted that Apple no longer sees value in investing resources into designing its own 5G modem and will instead continue relying on existing suppliers like Qualcomm. If true, this would mark a major strategic shift for Apple as internal 5G modem development has been considered crucial to bringing radio components fully in house. However, the veracity of the report remains questionable.

An Apple spokesperson has firmly denied the rumor of the modem project being scrapped. Additionally, Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman pushed back on Kuo’s report, saying his own sources indicate Apple’s modem engineering efforts remain ongoing as planned. This back and forth has muddied the waters on the actual status of one of Apple’s most secretive and critical long-term initiatives.

Years-Long Effort to Control the Core iPhone Experience

Bringing modem chip design in house has been an expensive, technically challenging multi-year endeavor for Apple’s silicon engineering group. But integrating key components like the modem and radio chips into the iPhone system on a chip has beenviewed as necessary to fully controlling the iPhone experience.

iPhone cellular modem/radio suppliers over time
2007-2016 Infineon
2016-2019 Intel
2019-Present Qualcomm

Apple initially relied on Infineon and Intel before technical issues prompted the switch to Qualcomm in recent years. But the iPhone maker has still wanted to develop its own high-performance 5G connectivity platform tailored for its devices rather than using third party solutions.

As early as 2018, Apple was working to build a team of wireless modem engineers and poach talent from Intel and Qualcomm. This followed Apple’s previous effort to catalyze in-house graphics processing designs through the acquisition of P.A. Semi in 2008, showing a consistent strategy of identifying key semiconductor domains and wanting to control their roadmap.

Motivations to Control the Full Stack

Owning the full modem stack could provide Apple with specific technical advantages in areas like battery efficiency, form factor design, chip costs, product roadmapping coordination, and new wireless feature integration timing. With Qualcomm currently supplying 20%+ of the iPhone’s component cost, having their own modem tech could also drastically improve Apple’s profit margins over the long run.

Additionally, Apple has faced turbulent legal, regulatory, and supply chain issues around Qualcomm that threatened iPhone production capacity in the past. Fully decoupling themselves from external modem suppliers would help mitigate against future uncontrollable vulnerabilities. It would also allow Apple to more nimbly customize 5G, WiFi, Bluetooth and other wireless implementations to optimize the user experience and differentiate iPhones.

Conflicting Signals Sow Confusion

If Apple were shutting down this strategically important initiative, it would signify a major reversal after substantial sunk costs developing custom silicon and radio chip engineering talent over years.

Kuo has historically had reliable visibility into Apple’s supply chain, lending credence to his report of the modem chip effort winding down. But Bloomberg and Gurman have also cultivated extensive Apple product intel unavailable to most external parties. Their conflicting signal of Apple still actively progressing on 5G modem development muddies the situation.

It’s also possible Kuo or his sources are only observing one portion of the full picture around Apple modem activities or plans. Much of the engineering work may still be underway internally before needing to interact with supplier factories. This could cause discrepancies in supply chain chatter that wrongly imply the whole program is ending rather than still being mid-development.

In that scenario, Kuo could have inaccurately extrapolated too much from limited data points without actually disproving the Gurman contention of ongoing modem progress. For now this critical question remains ambiguous without definitive proof either way.

What Comes Next?

In the coming months, further evidence should help decipher the degree of truth behind each report. If additional sources independently affirm signs of the modem project slowing or redirecting, it would add weight to doubts over its ongoing vitality.

Conversely, concrete milestones like relevant Apple modem chip patent applications materializing or iPhone modem supplier arrangements shifting would argue against total abandonment. That outcome would back Gurman’s assertion that Apple continues pushing ahead on 5G modem chip building blocks out of public view.

Until there are clearer signals, Apple’s wider goals around modem technology strategy and the actual timeline for any finished, internally-designed iPhone components remain uncertain. For now, Apple’s BP548 software team continues improving iPhone modem performance through low level software optimizations despite any potential modem chip team changes.

But after dedicating substantial funds and leadership mindshare into modem chip R&D, lack of ultimate progress would necessitate pivots on Apple’s silicon roadmap. It may also require evolving the broader iPhone industrial design to account for persisting reliance on larger third party off-the-shelf modem hardware.

If Apple successfully realizes their modem ambitions, it would complete a decade-long shift bringing all key processors in house. But whether challenges in radio frequency chip creation eventually scuttle this long term initiative, it underscores the complexity of delivering seamless iPhone experiences that work globally across hundreds of varied mobile networks.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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