Apple deal with Qualcomm reveals difficulty of designing 5G modems

US gadget giant Apple wants nothing more than to be independent of compatriot chipmaker Qualcomm but that’s clearly easier said than done.

In a short announcement it said that “it has entered into an agreement with Apple Inc. to supply Snapdragon 5G Modem‑RF Systems for smartphone launches in 2024, 2025 and 2026.” It then allowed itself a spot of light triumphalism by following up with “This agreement reinforces Qualcomm’s track record of sustained leadership across 5G technologies and products.”

The key word there is ‘leadership’. While Qualcomm rarely misses an opportunity to chest-beat in its press releases, it was undiplomatic to do so in this context. But Apple has been feverishly working on developing its own 5G modem since the lack of an alternative forced it to capitulate in its bitter licensing dispute with Qualcomm in 2019 and likely delay the launch of a 5G iPhone.

Apple had been hoping Intel would step up to the plate but that proved forlorn. Instead it decided to buy the modem bit from Intel, apparently on the basis of ‘if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself’. That was four years ago and this latest announcement reveals that Apple doesn’t dare sever the Qualcomm modem umbilicus for at least another three years.

Having said that, it must be making some progress since the Qualcomm investor slide below shows it assumes Apple will source the vast majority of its modems from somewhere other than Qualcomm by the final year of this deal. The further assumption is that source will be the Apple internal project.

Even more awkwardly for Apple, this announcement comes in the same week that it’s expected to launch the latest iPhones. It also informs the other big smartphone story that risks taking attention away from Apple – Huawei’s launches. The Chinese giant is allowing the rumour mill to speculate that it has succeeded where Apple has apparently failed, in designing its own competent 5G modem.

With all due respect to Huawei, if even Apple, which is great at designing application processors, is struggling with modems, then how likely is it that Huawei has done a lot better? On the other hand Huawei made a big noise about launching its own 5G chip at the start of 2019, even going so far as to offer it to Apple, but we have heard little talk of the Balong 5000 since then.

Just as with chip manufacturing, modem technology is constantly evolving so, as Radio Free Mobile notes: “before long everyone will be talking about 6G meaning that to get rid of Qualcomm, Apple has to hit a moving target.” The same goes for Huawei. If the Balong 5000 is as good as it was originally advertised you would expect Huawei to be regularly shouting from the rooftops about it. That it isn’t suggests similar struggles to emulate Qualcomm in modems.


Get the latest news straight to your inbox. Register for the newsletter here.

  • Private Networks in a 5G World

  • 5G Networking Digital Symposium

  • LIVE: Getting the Best out of 5G

  • 5G Ecosystem Digital Symposium

  • 2020 Vision Executive Summit

  • TechXLR8

  • BIG 5G Event

  • 5G World

  • 5G Latin America

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.