WSJ: Apple’s 5G Modem Prototypes ‘Three Years Behind Qualcomm’s Best Chip’

In the last few years, Apple has spent billions of dollars attempting to develop its own modem chip to replace the Qualcomm modem chips that it uses in iPhones, but a new paywalled Wall Street Journal report suggests Apple’s approach to the project has been dogged by unrealistic goals, a poor understanding of the challenges involved, and completely unusable prototypes.

5G Modem Feature Blue
Apple’s plan to design its own in-house modem led to the hiring of thousands of engineers: Apple acquired the majority of Intel’s smartphone modem business in 2019, and as it filled the project’s ranks with Intel engineers and others hired from Qualcomm, company executives set a goal to have the modem chip ready for fall 2023.

The modem chip project was codenamed Sinope, after the nymph in Greek mythology who outsmarted Zeus.

However, “it soon became apparent to many of the wireless experts on the project that meeting the goal was impossible,” according to the report.

The obstacles to finishing the chip were “largely of Apple’s own making,” according to former company engineers and executives familiar with the project who spoke to WSJ. Teams working on the project were “slowed by technical challenges, poor communication and managers split over the wisdom of trying to design the chips rather than buy them.”

From the report:

Apple had planned to have its modem chip ready to use in the new iPhone models. But tests late last year found the chip was too slow and prone to overheating. Its circuit board was so big it would take up half an iPhone, making it unusable.

Teams were siloed in separate groups across the U.S. and abroad without a global leader. Some managers discouraged the airing of bad news about delays or setbacks from engineers, leading to unrealistic goals and blown deadlines.

“Just because Apple builds the best silicon on the planet, it’s ridiculous to think that they could also build a modem,” said former Apple wireless director Jaydeep Ranade, who left the company in 2018, the year the project began.

Apple’s ability to design its own microprocessors for iPhones and iPads reportedly caused the company to think it could build modem chips. However, such chips transmit and receive wireless data from various types of wireless networks, and must comply with strict connectivity standards to serve wireless carriers around the world, making them a significantly more challenging undertaking.

Executives reportedly better understood the challenge after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results weren’t good, according to people familiar with the tests who spoke to WSJ. The chips were “essentially three years behind Qualcomm’s best modem chip,” and using them threatened to make iPhone wireless speeds slower than its competitors.

Apple was forced to settle its lawsuit with Qualcomm and has since used Qualcomm 5G modem chips for its latest ‌iPhone‌ and iPad lineups. As it stands, 2025 may be the soonest that the technology is finally advanced enough for Apple to phase out Qualcomm, according to the report’s sources.

“These delays indicate Apple didn’t anticipate the complexity of the effort,” said Serge Willenegger, a former longtime Qualcomm executive who spoke to WSJ. “Cellular is a monster.” Underlining the significance of Apple’s setback, the company last week extended its agreement to obtain modems from Qualcomm for three more years.

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