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January 22, 2021
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Apple may put (self-developed) 5G modems in iPads next year

Apple’s world-class silicon design teams may be close to introducing internally-developed 5G modems inside iPads as soon as 2021, a report claims.

Apple has invested billions in 5G development

The claim suggests the first Apple-developed 5G modems may be made available inside new mini-LED iPad Pro models starting in 2021.

The fresh speculation matches the 2019 prediction that: “It seems possible the company will ship its first 5G modem in an iPad or other device, rather than deploying it across all its mobile products at the same time.”

Apple’s 5G iPhones use 5G chips from Qualcomm, following Apple’s well-publicized peace deal with Qualcomm and its billion-dollar acquisition of Intel’s modem business in 2019.

Prior to Apple reaching its multiyear deal with Qualcomm, the company had been working with Intel to develop its own 5G modems, but it’s thought the effort had hit problems.

(One of these problems may emerge to have been Apple’s subsequently revealed decision to replace Intel’s processors with Apple Silicon in Macs.)

Apple’s road map for networking tech

Writing in 2019, Reuters cited: “A person familiar with the matter said Apple plans to use Qualcomm’s modem technology for a 5G iPhone in 2020 but wants to have an internally developed 5G modem ready for use in some of its products by 2021.”

“Intel previously disclosed plans to have a 5G modem ready by 2020, so tapping the Intel assets could help Apple hit its target,” it added.

The latest report (from Digitimes via MacRumors) suggests Apple is on track with this schedule and has succeeded in building its own antenna in package modem that supports both sub-6GHz and mmWave. Apple has been investigating the latter technology for years, though it is available in a small number of countries, including the U.S.

There are three good reasons why it won’t want to rush to put its own 5G inside iPhones straight away:

  • Apple will want to ensure its technology is sufficiently reliable for robust use. Fielding its own 5G in iPads would provide insight on this.
  • It must ensure its modem is supported across key markets before transitioning its entire product portfolio.
  • It must develop manufacturing capacity to build these devices in the kind of volumes it requires.

Apple’s six-year deal with Qualcomm in which it can purchase 5G for its devices has given the company precious time to explore this path.

System on chip

It is also possible Apple’s silicon design teams want to figure out how to build 5G in as an SoC element on future chips. Logically, doing so should drastically increase battery life and may improve 5G application performance by providing consistent bandwidth across the chip.

If the latest claims are correct, Apple may be on track to put its own modems inside its iPhones from as soon as the iPhone 14, though Apple’s other big anticipated chip move – a migration to 3nm process tech – may delay that by another year. That still fits snugly within the duration of the Qualcomm deal.

The strategic importance to Apple of combining myriad system elements on a single chip is clear. The more functions it can squeeze inside its tiny, low-power chips, the more they can be deployed in support of different product families, from small and smart low-power connected wearables to Macs.

We should all now be convinced of the ability for Apple to scale system performance from these processors, as evidenced by M1 Macs.

Why it matters

From a customer perspective, particularly for enterprise customers, Apple’s road map and billion-dollar investments in this space shows the depth of its desire to innovate in mobile networking.

Other than control of the technology, what Apple plans to accomplish by its investment in 5G development is a little less clear, but given that power and performance are two of the pillars of its processor design teams, its logical to think it has the same aims for networking.

That in itself suggests Apple wants its 5G devices to deliver the fastest and most stable 5G performance of any device anywhere – and likely also means it is interested in exploring/supporting the application of network intelligence (network slicing, SD-WAN and so on). Though it may need to think about fixing some of its more prosaic networking problems first.

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