For a glimpse of the iPhone's future, look to Intel, not Qualcomm.
Over the past two years, since it started using Intel's modems in the iPhone 7 , Apple has locked its modem feature set to what Intel provides. Today, Intel promised a doozy: a 1.6Gbps LTE modem scheduled for mid-2019, just in time for the iPhone 12. That's a faster LTE connection than anyone, including Qualcomm, has promised.
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Intel, of course, did not mention Apple in its announcement. But Apple is by far Intel's largest 4G smartphone modem client, so we're going to cut through the nonsense. The iPhone-ready Intel XMM 7660 modem announcement came alongside a key 5G announcement as well: the XMM 8060, a multi-mode 2G-to-5G modem that will be needed for the first round of mobile 5G launches in mid-2019.
"When 5G is initially deployed, we don't expect the coverage to be ubiquitous," said Chenwei Yan, Intel's VP of connnected products and programs. "Consumer devices will have to operate in 5G mode when they can, and fall back to 4G, 3G, or even 2G."
How Long Can Intel Hold the iPhone?
The XMM 7660 is the first Category 19, 1.6Gbps LTE modem we've ever heard of. Qualcomm's current X20 modem is only category 18, or 1.2Gbps, though it has a major launch event coming up in early December, at which point it might catch up.
No current US network can reach anywhere near 1.6Gbps. Yan said that's going to require a combination of licensed spectrum and LAA, a technique of sending LTE over Wi-Fi airwaves that all four US carriers have said they're currently working on.
While Intel wanted to promote the 7660, a 2019 product, it was oddly quiet about the 7560, its "Qualcomm-killer" modem for next year's iPhone. The 7560 will be Intel's first modem to support the Sprint and Verizon CDMA networks, meaning that Apple would finally have no need to use Qualcomm if it doesn't want to.
Yan declined to answer my question about 7560 availability, sending us back to previous pronouncements and saying only that "we're on track for deployment as we previously guided." We think that means 2018.
Once we get to the iPhone 13 or 14 timeframe, there's another twist. Apple has been hiring its own modem and RF engineers. Samsung and Huawei already build their own modems, and Apple looks to not be too far behind. The 5G transition would be a good time for Apple to make that switch. That could free Apple of dependence not only on Qualcomm, but on Intel as well.
While US carriers will likely launch their initial 5G networks in 2019, Apple probably isn't going to jump on board until 2020 or 2021. As we saw with both 3G and 4G, Apple doesn't like to drop in new modems until it can be assured they will work on a basically nationwide network.
But the prospect of losing Apple shouldn't terrify Intel in the 5G space. Apple is Intel's only major 4G client, but in the 5G world, Intel has other options. The company said it's part of AT&T and Verizon's fixed wireless trials, and specifically called out PCs as a market for its modems. The XMM 8060 also puts Intel in the game for everything from stadium entertainment services to self-driving cars.
"Early use cases will include fixed wireless access. and then following that will be a lot of video use cases, connected cars, industrial, and factory automation," said Alex Quach, Intel's VP of 5G strategy.