Apple is working on its own modems for years today. The effort goes back to at least 2018 and was reinforced in 2019 when Apple acquired the entire modem division from Intel after Intel tried and failed to provide a meaningful alternative to Qualcomm.
But making a good cellular modem is hard, very hard (just ask Intel). Building something with the performance, reliability, and power efficiency of Qualcomm’s modem–or very close–has proven to be very difficult for some of the brightest and best-funded engineers. However, Apple continues to soldier on, and after years of wondering if an Apple modem would be featured in the next iPhone, we may finally have the answer.
A recent rumor says that the iPhone SE 4, due for release in spring 2024, will be the first iPhone with Apple’s own 5G cellular modem. As with the current model, it is likely to be limited to sub-6GHz frequencies, and further testing of faster mmWave networks will determine whether the modem (or another version of it) will appear in the iPhone 16 in the fall of 2024 .
We’ve been hearing “maybe next year” for at least a few years, but this time seems to be different. For one, the rumors are focused on a specific product and one that has a lot of meaning. If the iPhone SE doesn’t have mmWave support, that’s not an issue. And if the Apple modem is not SOMEWHAT as performant or power-efficient as Qualcomm’s best, well that’s not a dealbreaker for the iPhone SE market either.
But the biggest reason to think about a 5G modem directly from Qualcomm’s CEO, who spoke to CNBC at the Mobile World Congress, who said this week that his “assumption” is Qualcomm not to make modems for iPhones next year. When Qualcomm’s CEO told investors that he expects Apple’s orders to drop next year, that’s as strong a sign as we expect in the first quarter.
What does the Apple 5G modem mean for you?
For most of us, this doesn’t really matter. The average user doesn’t know who made their phone’s cellular modem and doesn’t care, as long as it works. Switching to its own modems would save Apple a little more money buying chips and give them more control over the firmware, but it’s not like the savings should be passed on to consumers.
In fact, Apple’s new modem will be an unknown quantity, while Qualcomm’s performance is well-known and respected. Apple will surely do a mountain of testing between now and next year’s production ramp-up to make sure the iPhone SE’s new cellular modem works well. It’s possible that top speeds may be a little lower or power efficiency less good, but in small ways that only the tech press will notice after a lot of testing and benchmarking — and maybe not before.
It is also possible that this is a WHAT modem, better in some respects than the Qualcomm model it will replace. We just won’t know until it’s in the hands of reviewers. But we don’t expect Apple to go to market with its own modem if it’s a significant downgrade for iPhone SE users. That’s why it took so long—the modem is one of the most important parts of the iPhone and it needs to work smoothly and efficiently.
The more interesting question is whether Apple will use one of its own modems in the iPhone 16 line due to be released in late 2024. real-world performance is close. But for people who use it, as long as there aren’t any major issues like overheating, dropped connections, or fast draining batteries, there should be little or no difference.