Apple has been working on its own modems for years now. The effort goes back to at least 2018 and was heavily bolstered 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). Creating something with the performance, reliability, and power efficiency of Qualcomm’s modem–or close enough–has proven to be too difficult for even some of the brightest and most well-funded engineers. Still, Apple has soldiered on, and after years of wondering if an Apple modem will be featured in the next iPhone, we may finally have our answer.
A recent rumor says that the iPhone SE 4, due for release in spring 2024, is going to be the first iPhone with Apple’s own 5G cellular modem. Like the current model, it will likely be limited to sub-6GHz frequencies, and further testing on faster mmWave networks will determine if the modem (or another version of it) will appear in the iPhone 16 in the fall of 2024.
We’ve heard “maybe next year” for at least a few years, but this time seems different. For one, the rumors are focused on a specific product and one that makes a lot of sense. If the iPhone SE doesn’t have mmWave support, that’s not really an issue. And if Apple’s modem isn’t quite as performant or power-efficient as Qualcomm’s best, well that’s not exactly a dealbreaker for the iPhone SE market either.
But the biggest reason to think a 5G modem comes directly from Qualcomm’s CEO, speaking to CNBC at Mobile World Congress, who said this week that his “assumption” is Qualcomm won’t be making modems for iPhones next year. If Qualcomm’s CEO is telling investors that it expects Apple’s orders to go down next year, that’s about as solid of an indication as we could hope for at this early stage.
What does an Apple 5G modem mean for you?
For most of us, this won’t really mean much. The average user doesn’t know who makes their phone’s cellular modem and doesn’t care, as long as it works. Moving to its own modems will save Apple a bit of money in buying chips and give them more control over firmware, but it’s not like those savings will necessarily be passed along to consumers.
Certainly, Apple’s new modem will be an unknown quantity, while Qualcomm’s performance is very well-known and respected. Apple will surely do a mountain of testing between now and the ramp-up of production next year to make sure the new iPhone SE’s cellular modem performs well. It’s quite possible that maximum speeds may be slightly lower or power efficiency not quite as good, but in minor ways that only the tech press will notice after extensive testing and benchmarking—and maybe not ever then.
It’s also possible that it’s a fantastic modem, better in some respects than the Qualcomm model it would replace. We simply won’t know until it ends up 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’s taken so long—the modem is one of the most important parts of the iPhone and it has to work seamlessly and efficiently.
The more interesting question is whether Apple will use one of its own modems in the iPhone 16 line due for release late in 2024. The performance expectations are a lot higher there, and assuming the rumors are true, Apple will surely be watching the iPhone SE’s real-world performance closely. But for the people using it, as long as there aren’t any major issues like overheating, dropped connections, or swiftly draining batteries, there should be little to no difference.