With its own cellular chip, Apple puts 5G MacBooks on the roadmap

An inbuilt modem would see Apple's laptops finally catch up to their Windows-based competitors.

By David Flynn, December 14 2020
With its own cellular chip, Apple puts 5G MacBooks on the roadmap

Apple will follow up the creation of its own Mac processor with a custom-built cellular modem which could finally see Apple laptops gain 5G wireless connectivity.

In the same way that the latest M-series of Apple-designed silicon will replace Intel's desktop and laptop processors, the bespoke cellular modem chip would oust longtime supplier Qualcomm as the wireless engine of iPhones and iPads and encourage Apple to deliver a new series of MacBook laptops with inbuilt 5G.

The lack of a built-in modem remains perhaps the most noticeable omission from Apple's family of notebooks, despite it being increasingly common on competing Windows-based laptops.

Apple's leading chip executive revealed last week that the company has begun building its own cellular modem for future devices.

Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware technologies, made the disclosure in a town hall meeting with Apple employees, according to people familiar with the comments.

“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.”

Srouji said the US$1 billion acquisition of Intel’s modem business in 2019 helped Apple build a team of hardware and software engineers to develop its own cellular modem.

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

Apple has been hiring engineers from Qualcomm for years to help it build the modem, and has offices focused on the effort in San Diego, at its Cupertino, California headquarters and in Europe.

Years in the making

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

In the meeting with employees, 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, Srouji said.

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, and cellular modem development is also highly challenging.

Wireless carriers build networks in different ways, using distinct radio frequencies and varying equipment that must conform to local rules. Modems have to integrate with this diverse technology, while also hopping back onto older wireless systems seamlessly.

That complexity has increased with the ever-growing need for data and the technical tricks used to deliver it.

This requires rigorous field testing. Qualcomm runs labs that replicate the environment that any phone will experience anywhere in the world. Its engineers have worked with carriers for decades to tune their systems and make sure everything works in sync.

That knowledge and experience has acted as a barrier to other companies breaking its stranglehold on this lucrative part of the semiconductor industry.

“Notwithstanding Apple’s admittedly considerable semiconductor design expertise, modems are challenging beasts,” Bernstein Research analysts wrote in a note to investors on Friday.

“It took them 5-10 years to develop a viable PC processor even with annual iPad iterations, and modems are likely to present a greater challenge.”

Also read: Apple's muscular M2 MacBook Pro chips could outgun top-shelf PCs

Additional reporting by Bloomberg


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.