Apple's 5G Modem Pegged for a 2022 Introduction

Mike Dano
10/14/2019

Following widespread rumors that Apple is planning to design its own 5G modem, a new report offers a possible release date for the alleged product: 2022. Or possibly 2023, given the difficulty in developing such a product.

This is all according to a new report from Fast Company, citing a source with knowledge of the company's plans. The publication noted Apple declined to comment on its report.

Apple's interest in building its own 5G modem lines up with the company's recent activities on the topic this year. Apple in April ended its two-year legal battle with Qualcomm by signing a "multiyear" chipset supply agreement with the company, a massive pivot that coincided with the end of Apple's chipset deal with Intel for iPhones. Apple subsequently paid $1 billion for Intel's smartphone modem business, including 2,200 Intel employees and an unspecified number of Intel patents.

All that maneuvering essentially paves the way for Apple to quickly release a 5G iPhone (thanks to Qulacomm's chips) while concurrently developing its own 5G chipset using Intel's assets that it could use at some later date.

According to Fast Company, Apple's 5G modem development will be led by Esin Terzioglu, a former Qualcomm executive who joined Apple in 2017, and will be based in San Diego. Apple previously announced plans to open an office in San Diego and hire up to 1,000 new employees there over the coming years -- a further expansion from its current headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and a major incursion into Qualcomm's own San Diego home base.

Why this matters
Apple has long worked to be a vertically integrated company that designs its own components in order to fit them all snugly into its own products. A 5G modem would align with that strategy. Further, Apple wouldn't be alone in developing its own 5G modem: Huawei (via its Kirin 990) and Samsung (via it Exynos 980) have both already introduced their own 5G chipsets for their respective smartphones.

According to IDC, Apple is the world's third-biggest smartphone vendor with a 10.1% share of the market, behind Samsung's 22.7% and Huawei's 17.6%.

But, more importantly, Apple's reported interest in developing its own 5G modem could pave the way for the company to install that product into devices beyond the iPhone. Many in the 5G industry expect the technology to eventually make its way into products ranging from laptops to watches to earphones to eyeglasses -- all products that Apple is either making now or reportedly developing.

Thus, the company could gain significant savings by developing its own 5G modem if it indeed plans to install 5G capabilities into a wide range of its devices.

One more thing
Although Apple is widely expected to release a 5G-capable iPhone next year, at least one analyst is warning that the phone might not make use of the millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G spectrum bands that US operators like AT&T and Verizon are using for their initial 5G network rollouts.

Specifically, analyst Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem, wrote in a recent FierceWireless post that "it's reasonable to consider the possibility that Apple will hold off on an iPhone that supports mmWave, at least in 2020." Instead, the phone could support 5G in other spectrum bands such as 3.5GHz and 600MHz that other operators both in the US and globally are preparing to use for 5G. After all, 5G networks in mmWave spectrum often cover only small parts of major metro cities.

However, other analysts believe Apple's initial set of iPhones expected to be released next year will in fact support millimeter-wave transmissions. "We believe all three new models are currently set to include both sub 6GHz and mmWave 5G support," wrote Jeffrey Kvaal of Nomura's Instinet, adding that the Wall Street analyst firm recently raised its 5G iPhone forecasts for 2020 from 60 million to 75 million units.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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