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.

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.

"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.

Executives reportedly better understood the challenge after Apple tested its prototypes late last year. The results were so poor that 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, according to people familiar with the tests who spoke to WSJ.

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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Top Rated Comments

Lounge vibes 05 Avatar
9 months ago

Extremely embarrassing for Apple, but after all innovation is scarse these days at the company so it’s nothing to be surprised about.
What’s embarrassing about it?
Company has hiccups on totally unannounced internal project.
…Like every other company in the world.
Score: 28 Votes (Like | Disagree)
macduke Avatar
9 months ago
Too bad it didn’t work out.

The problem is we all expected Qualcomm would be like Intel and Apple would be like Apple and make an M2 equivalent for 5G modems.

Turns out Qualcomm already makes the M2 of 5G modems and Apple is the Intel of 5G modems, quite literally buying Intel’s failing business. Not sure how they expected that one to work out?
Score: 24 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Dolmio Avatar
9 months ago
On the flip side Qualcomm were probably worried seeing how good apple silicon was so doubled down and made their modems even better and harder for Apple to surpass which is a win for the consumer never great when a monopoly isn’t threaten they rest on their laurels
Score: 24 Votes (Like | Disagree)
MayaUser Avatar
9 months ago
comparing prototypes with full blown final stage Chip
This is WSJ that cannot understand tech
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)
User 6502 Avatar
9 months ago
Extremely embarrassing for Apple, but after all innovation is scarse these days at the company so it’s nothing to be surprised about.
Score: 13 Votes (Like | Disagree)
laptech Avatar
9 months ago
Unless Apple licenses Qualcomm patents so they use the technology in their own modem chips Apple will never have a modem chip that will come close to Qualcomm's modems. Apple has bitten off more than it can chew and their stubbornness to build their own modem chip rather than just pay to use Qualcomm's is costing Apple billions.
Score: 13 Votes (Like | Disagree)