There were not many surprises in yesterday's announcement that Apple is buying Intel's smartphone modem business. Apple's use of Intel modems has been public for many years, the interest in acquiring the modem has been anything but transparent for months, and both $ 1 billion and the general scope leaked before the deal was formally unveiled. Between this acquisition and a previous multi-year license agreement with Qualcomm, informed observers have predicted that Apple will realistically need about five years to release its first 5G modem.
Most of the Intel Apple deal reports yesterday remained largely at the four corners of the news, but Reuters added an interesting wrinkle: According to a "person familiar with the case, Apple" wants an internally developed 5G modem technology ready for use in any of its products by 2021
If we did not talk about a Reuters report, it may be easy to write off this suggestion as either wishful thinking or direct imagination. Apple tamper historically does not much, if at all, with the components of older models, so the idea that it can go back and re-engineer, for example, the iPhone 8 with a new modem works far inside. However, the idea may make sense if the company intended to update an older model with a faster A-series chip and basic 5G features, as did the improved re-release of the iPhone 5S as the iPhone SE. So the concept of releasing an Apple-built 5G modem to a relaxed iPhone is not as crazy as it may sound.
A big question is timing. Although Apple assumes Apple will close this deal later this year – and it may pass regulatory hurdles as fast because jobs, not just patents, are on the line – it's hard to believe the company wants some 5G chips ready to enter products less than two years later. Apple has historically struggled to make some bigger iPhone changes with so little lead time, and the idea that it could go from 5G chip to producing and sending a chip in a finished product, strives for credibility. Based on the previous precedent, the company is more likely to leak such an "aggressive timeline" and then miss it after a year (or more).
But Apple does not have outsiders information, which means that such an early release is possible. Despite Intel's revocation of the 5G smartphone modem work, the 5G chips might have been longer than expected, and since Apple had access to prototypes, its own development work might not have started from scratch. Similarly, Apple engineers could work on their own solutions for some time and may well continue that process while regulators are considering the Intel agreement.
Another question is what Apple's 5G chip will actually be able to do. As Intel discovered after spending years and countless resources, it is not an easy engineering task to even experience professionals making a 5G modem; Only a handful of companies in the world have kinda-sorta managed to do so, and then with some non-trivial early problems. An iFixit demolition yesterday confirmed that Huawei's first 5G phone uses a giant cooling system and unusually large stacked chips to support high-speed mobile phones. Report last week suggested Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G overheating when used in hot (read: summer time) outdoor conditions. Last year, Mediatek sports 5G prototypes active fans. And these are the world's most experienced companies that make 5G chips.
These are issues that led Apple to make a last-minute deal with Qualcomm – the world's most respected 5G modem developer – so Apple could send viable 5G iPhones by 2020. Then Qualcomm will be in its third generation of 5G chips, which are likely to run cooler, work on virtually any global 5G network and support all the major 5G frequencies used in different territories.
For those of us who follow 5G, the Reuters report suggests that Apple may be willing to send a self-built 5G modem that only supports some 5G radio frequencies. The resulting iPhone may be able to work on slow low frequency 5G networks, while unable to connect to ultra-fast high-frequency (millimeter-wave) networks. Or it can support low and midband 5G spectrum without millimeter wave hardware. That is the most likely scenario, in my view.
The reason why this may work regionally is that some countries have not yet approved millimeter wave frequencies for use with 5G and, unlike the United States, will not care if their 5G units support high bandwidths in 2021. Buyers of these 2021 The iPhones may get "5G Lite", but it won't be much different from the non-millimeter wavy 5G devices currently sold in Europe and Asia – the time I just want to be behind the times.
It would be to preserve the status quo of Apple's Intel 4G modem days, when Qualcomm and Intel dual-capture chips were retrieved, but the Qualcomms reportedly held back to guarantee similar speeds regardless of the components inside. Until Apple is ready to go toe to toe with Qualcomm on flagship grade 5G modems, it's probably the kind of "limited" performance that non-Qualcomm iPhones will deliver. And it's going to take longer than 2021 – probably much longer – before we see real energy and performance benefits with an Apple-developed 5G chip.