Apple to roll its own modem by 2023 — report

From Sam Byford’s “Apple reportedly switching to its own iPhone modem design in 2023” posted Wednesday on The Verge:

Apple is planning to partner with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. for the production of its own 5G modems for future iPhones, according to a new report in Nikkei. Apple is said to be planning to use TSMC’s 4nm process node, which hasn’t yet been deployed for any commercial product; the modem is apparently being designed and tested at 5nm before moving to mass production in 2023 at 4nm.

Apple’s switch to modems of its own design is widely expected to happen in 2023, and TSMC is the natural manufacturing partner. Qualcomm, which is the dominant player in the industry and produces modem components for the entire iPhone 13 lineup, recently said that it expects to account for just 20 percent of iPhone modem orders in two years’ time.

Apple bought Intel’s 5G modem division in 2019, foreshadowing the eventual switch. Earlier that year Qualcomm and Apple agreed to end a costly modem technology patent dispute, with Qualcomm receiving more than $4 billion as part of the settlement.

My take: Old news. See, for example, MacRumors’ Apple-Designed 5G Modem Said to Debut in All 2023 iPhone Models dated 3/11/21.

Friend-of-the-blog Bartley Yee, fearing that the first batch of Apple-designed modems might be slower than Qualcomm’s, writes:

Could it happen that fast?  Might they try the new chip in a lower level design like the iPhone SE 2022 where possibly lesser performance would not be a huge problem?

9 Comments

  1. Fred Stein said:
    Would Apple debut its 5G modem running at a lower speed than Qualcomm? Not likely.

    Apple has the luxury to wait till they can do better. That’s the Apple way. Plus they’re TSMC’s best customer. Plus Apple can integrate with the rest of the chip / sw stack to optimize performance further.

    2023 starts a 2-year plus migration all all mobile devices to Apple 5G. Might we see 5G Macs if and when 5G allows cord cutting. And then there are rumored new products.

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    November 24, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      What I’m expecting to see from Apple modem-in-iPhone is better overall power performance. Can Apple reshuffle the signal processing to, for example, GPU cores? That’s the kind of system-level refactoring that Qualcomm can’t do. (But WinComm might well do that, even with the Microsoft-Qualcomm exclusivity deal ending. Could we see WinComm flavors of Surface with high performance/low power cellular?)

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      November 24, 2021
    • Robert Paul Leitao said:
      Thank you, Fred! 5G (and it successors) will broaden wireless connectivity well beyond smartphones. Yes. I can definitely see Apple including its own modem technology in iPhones and iPads (of course), in Macs and other Apple-branded products. Much of the impetus for acquiring Intel’s modem IP was to have control over the connectivity of Apple products.

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      November 24, 2021
  2. Ken Cheng said:
    So, even if Apple makes its own modem, they still will have to pay IP fees to Qualcomm and others, right? Or will the IP Apple has gained from their Intel acquisition give them leverage so that they just cross-license for a nominal or no fee?

    I wonder if this modem, if it’s not bespoke, could eventually be sold to 3rd-parties, and take some of the gloss off Qualcomm’s sales? If it’s not bespoke, and on such a small process, it could be lower power than Qualcomm’s modem, and the modem has to be one of the three largest sources of power drain in a phone, besides the chip and the display. Then again, 3rd-party phone mfrs might not have IP leverage with Qualcomm, so they’d be buying Apple’s modems and still paying licensing fees to Qualcomm. Of course, their Qualcomm IP license could be from Apple, but we know Qualcomm will still sue and try to double-dip.

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    November 24, 2021
    • Bart Yee said:
      @Ken Selling Apple modem IP or built parts to third parties IS an interesting idea but hasn’t been Apple’s MO as far as I can see, even when it comes to app access to the modem. In the current and short term semiconductor capacity crunch, Apple and TSMC likely don’t have spare 5nM capacity, let alone ramping up 4nm (or 5nm enhanced) to build “extra” chips not destined for Apple products. While modem chips are important, the much larger and more lucrative CPU, GPU, and other chips already slated for 5nm and below processes are dominating current and foreseeable production capacity.

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      November 24, 2021
  3. Bart Yee said:
    My somewhat limited comment to Philip was in the context of providing an Apple designed 5G modem to a lower level (SE type) iPhone that is built primarily for mid-band 5G operation, not nearly so much for super fast power hogging mmWave bands. IMO, 5G is definitely a draw for users but much more so as a magnet for telecoms and capturing future subscribers. Would telecoms offer less expensive but more easily built and accessible mid band only 5G plans to capture “value performance” oriented customers with a much more accessible iPhone product? A lot depends on their country’s decisions on spectrum and potential for deployment, plus obviously demographic to want and use 5G, including commercial interests.

    I agree Apple could and would intro Apple 5G parts in normal high end iPhone IF performance (speed, power consumption, OEM costs) is as good or better than Qualcomm at the time. Where I suspect Apple is going with sub-5nm modems is better performance with less power used than current Qualcomm X60 parts. Where Apple will excel is not needing an actual separate modem chip but an integrated module within the CPU with dedicated memory, high bandwidth bus and processing, perhaps physically buffered a bit for heat management. Higher value iPhones would have all bands enabled, less expensive starter iPhone SE with mmWave excluded or reserved for a more expensive variant (SE Plus) with bigger battery.

    Primarily, an Apple 5G modem gives Apple more options, more performance, more battery life, and less cost, assuming they actually can build a solid competitive chip design.

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    November 24, 2021
  4. Dan Scropos said:
    Is this the start of the long-rumored satellite “moon shot” to bypass carriers?

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    November 24, 2021
      • David Emery said:
        If anything, it might -expand- carriers by allowing satellite based carriers, as well as land based carriers.

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        November 24, 2021

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