Apple to develop own cellular modem in a ‘key strategic transition’

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
  • Follow author on
Apple Image
Representational Image

US-based Apple has begun developing its own cellular modem for future devices, a step that would replace the components of Qualcomm, the American wireless technology company, Apple’s top chip executive told employees.

Johny Srouji, senior vice president of hardware technology for Apple, made the announcement during a meeting with Apple employees.

“This year, we kicked off the development of our first internal cellular modem which will enable another key strategic transition,” he said. “Long-term strategic investments like these are a critical part of enabling our products and making sure we have a rich pipeline of innovative technologies for our future.”

Cellular modem

One of the most important parts of a smartphone is a cellular modem as it enables phone calls and connection to the internet through cellular networks.

Mr. Srouji said the $1 billion purchase of Intel’s modem company in 2019 helped Apple grow its own cellular modem by building a team of hardware and software engineers. Intel is the world’s largest semi-conductor chip manufacturer.

He said the modem is one of a few wireless chips designed by the company, including the Apple Watch W-series and the iPhone U1 ultrawide-band chip for precise location information.

The latest iPhones with 5G use Qualcomm parts. Before that for a couple of years, Apple used Intel parts and then acquired the business unit from the chipmaker.

Mr. Srouji did not clarify when the cellular modem will be able to ship in products, but a six-year licensing pact is included in a 2019 patent agreement between Apple and Qualcomm. Qualcomm charges phone makers licensing fees based on the wireless patents it owns, regardless of whether or not they use its chips.

In the meeting with employees, Mr. Srouji also highlighted Apple’s other work on chips, including the new M1 processors in the latest MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mac mini. Apple is working on a “family” of Mac chips, he said. Apple is planning upgrades that are designed to improve on Intel’s fastest computer chips, reports from earlier this week suggested.

For years Apple has been hiring Qualcomm engineers to help it build the modem, and has offices in San Diego, at its headquarters in California and in Europe that focus on the effort.

Self reliance

The move extends Apple’s push toward greater reliance on its own parts at the expense of Qualcomm, Intel and others. Qualcomm gets about 11 percent of its revenue from Apple, while Intel gets roughly 7 percent of sales from the iPhone maker, according to data.

Apple started shipping its own chips in 2010 with the A4 main processor in the iPhone 4 and original iPad. Since then, Apple has expanded this work to custom camera processors, chips to handle artificial intelligence tasks and collect motion data, along with chips for Apple Watches, Apple TVs and headphones.

The Mac processors are some of Apple’s most ambitious chip designs to date. Cellular modem development is also challenging.