Apple reportedly plans to use Intel 5G modem in 2020, but will it be any good?

Apple has boxed itself into a corner by going to war with Qualcomm, so a lot rides on the competitiveness of Intel’s 5G modem.

Fast Company has reported that Apple intends to use the Intel 8161 5G modem in its 2020 iPhones as part of its already-known strategy of switching to Intel as its sole provider of modems. This move seems to be largely driven by Apple’s dispute with Qualcomm over how much it charges for its chips.

When large companies declare legal war on each other the dispute usually metastasises as their respective legal teams search for further dirt they can use as leverage in the ongoing negotiations. These things usually conclude in an out-of-court settlement, the terms of which are largely determined by the relative legal strength of the respective positions.

The more likely one party is to win a court case, the stronger its position in the pre-case negotiation, which is why Qualcomm has been so keen to prove that Apple committed industrial espionage in sharing Qualcomm trade secrets with Intel in order to help it produce better modems.

While Qualcomm’s most recent court filing broadly outlines fresh allegations resulting from the discovery process, conversations we had at its recent event in Hong Kong suggested Qualcomm has got hold of emails that prove the alleged passing on of protected intellectual property took place.

If Apple did indeed offer Intel a helping hand, something that Intel denies, then the clear inference is that Intel’s modems were of insufficient quality without cheating. A worst case scenario might be that the 5G modems Apple apparently intends to use would be declared illegal, but even if that doesn’t happen there will be questions over the 5G performance of those iPhones versus phones running Qualcomm modems.

So, assuming this rumour is accurate, a hell of a lot is riding on those first Intel 5G modems. If they’re rubbish then not only will that be a direct competitive win for Qualcomm, but the sales and reputation of the iPhone are likely to suffer too. In its desire to dominate its suppliers Apple is forcing itself to make some technology choices that may be far more costly than any money saved on components.