Apple’s self-built 5G modem will cut device power and size, not prices

Developing cellular modems isn’t easy. At the dawn of the 5G era, only a handful of companies are capable of designing 5G modems, and even players as large as Intel have struggled with the engineering and financials. Layers of patented innovations combine with conceptual and physical development hurdles to make using someone else’s parts far more practical than trying to make your own.

That’s why Apple ultimately folded its two-year global legal battle against 5G chipmaker Qualcomm and why virtually every other 5G device maker is using Qualcomm’s parts. But while Apple will use Qualcomm’s chips for the foreseeable future, it’s also developing its own 5G modem, with a most recently reported release date of 2025.

Apple’s reasoning isn’t as simple as it may seem. Sure, the company would prefer not to buy chips from Qualcomm, but it’s not going to save money making its own 5G modems. 

Modem hiring and R&D alone will cost it a small fortune, which will be compounded by the need to keep paying patent licensing fees to Qualcomm, Nokia, and every other company that has contributed to cellular technology. In other words, iPhone prices aren’t going to suddenly drop in 2025 just because they have Apple modems inside.

This move can partly be explained by Apple’s history of wanting to control the key elements of its products — it already makes its own metals, processors, and even the fonts used on its device screens. But in many cases, Apple is fine exerting control in the form of collaboration with existing companies, such as steering development of the glass or screen technology it needs, rather than taking on full design or manufacturing responsibilities itself.

Modems are different from screens in that they could, under ideal circumstances, be combined with other parts inside devices to achieve size and power reductions. One A-series processor could conceivably hold the CPU, GPU, and modem rather than requiring two or three chips, which means freeing up more internal device space for a battery, cameras, a hinge, or other components. Moreover, a power efficiency-obsessed company like Apple could optimize every tick of the modem with the CPU’s tocks, to say nothing of engineering the modem from the ground up to include custom features and omit unnecessary ones.

I keep using the word “could” because this is a lot more difficult than it sounds, especially when 5G and bleeding edge chip manufacturing are added to the mix. Beyond the challenge of actually building a working 5G modem, Apple would need to make it sit right next to CPU and GPU cores without signal interference. The company would also hope to build the modem using whatever chip manufacturing process the CPU and GPU cores are at in 2025 — perhaps 2.5 nanometers. At that level of miniaturization, Apple’s first 5G chips would have roughly 25% the size and power consumption of those that will be released next year.

Apple’s chipmaking team is extremely impressive, and the laptop-class A12X Bionic it released last year shows it’s ready to challenge Intel and Qualcomm chips in raw CPU and GPU performance. Moreover, a decade spent making iPhones has enabled Apple to squeeze its own processors into something as small as an Apple Watch while leaving room for another company’s modem. But by 2025, an Apple-developed 5G modem won’t just enable a thinner iPhone or Apple Watch; the next steps in chip footprint reduction and integration will allow a combined processor to fit inside AR glasses and other devices without noticeably increasing their weight or size.

That’s Apple’s endgame with modem engineering: the ability to produce smaller, lighter mobile devices that people will feel more comfortable carrying or wearing everywhere. Ideally, it would want to be able to do so exclusively, but it won’t be alone in trying. Qualcomm is already building 4G modems directly into its latest Snapdragon chips, and all of the key chip players — including rivals such as Samsung and Huawei — are working toward fully integrated 5G system-on-chip solutions. Based on currently available information, all of these companies are likely to succeed before Apple releases its first 5G modem in any form.

A 2025 rollout for an Apple-developed modem seems a long way off. But there’s every reason to believe the company is going to need years of development time to catch up with its current supplier, let alone eclipse it — a challenge Intel couldn’t hurdle with its 4G chips. By 2025, Qualcomm and others will already be in the earliest stages of prototyping 6G technology, which Apple’s investments in 5G will hopefully enable it to participate in as an inventor and developer, not just a customer.