Apple Takes a Big Step Toward Making Its Own iPhone Modems

Apple may have just made a move that will let it assert even more control over the parts it uses for its iPhones.

Citing unnamed people familiar with the move, Reuters reports that Apple’s efforts to build its own modem chips is now being handled by its hardware technology division. Previously, Apple’s supply chain unit handled that project, the report said.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

It’s just the latest step in Apple’s move away from using modems from the likes of Qualcomm and Intel in its smartphones. Late last year, job listings indicated that Apple was looking to hire a lot of cellular modem systems architects, fueling rumors that Apple would start designing its own iPhone modems.

Though Apple designs and commissions the manufacturing of the iPhone’s high-performing A Series chipsets, plenty of other components inside of Apple’s phones are bought from other companies. Samsung and LG currently build displays for the iPhone, for instance. And Qualcomm was once the modem supplier for the majority of iPhones, but patent and royalty disputes have left Apple looking elsewhere for modems, first to Intel and now to its own in-house effort apparently.

The new report by Reuters says that Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies took over the company’s modem design efforts last month. Apple’s timeline for coming out with its own modem chip could put it behind the initial launch of 5G phones, though it’s been widely expected that the 2019 iPhones would lack 5G connectivity.

MORE: Apple's Sitting Out the 5G Party — It's the Right Move

Intel, who has announced its 5G chip is just about ready to go, will likely remain the iPhone modem provider for the iPhone’s expected 2020 jump to next-gen wireless.

Why does Apple want to build its own modem chip? Beyond the disputes between it and Qualcomm, Apple believes it can save money in the long-run by taking greater control over the design and manufacturing process of the chip. Modem chips are among the priciest components in the iPhone, costing the company anywhere from $3 billion to $4 billion a year, an industry expert told Reuters.

It’s worth pointing out that Taiwan’s TCMS, the company Apple uses to manufacture its A Series processors, also makes chips for Qualcomm and Intel. So the move to design its own modem, should Apple choose TCMS to manufacture it, could essentially be as simple as cutting out a middle man.

Then there’s also the idea that Apple could speed up its already speedy handsets by more closely integrating the designs of its in-house A Series chips with an in-house modem chip. Qualcomm provides this synergy for phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9, which uses both Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processor and Snapdragon LTE modem.

Apple’s charge into the modem chip division isn’t the only new microcomponent project the company is rumored to be undertaking. By 2020, the company’s Mac computers may all be running on a battery-sipping, Apple-designed ARM processor similar to its A Bionic, reports have indicated. That would mean the company could be ditching Intel for its computers and phones around the same time.

Though an iPhone that’s powered by a modem chip of Apple’s own design does ultimately sound way more like a business move for the company than an exciting feature add-on for customers, we’re definitely interested to learn more about Apple’s full plans with the tech as we get closer to a release.

Daniel Bean is a freelance writer with years of experience whose articles have appeared in Tom's Guide. He has previously worked for LinkedIn, Yahoo News, and the Observer, as well as TripleByte, Circa, Inverse, CBS, and ABC. Currently, he is full-time content lead for Mixpanel's blog, The Signal, writing about innovators and analytics.