Apple will struggle with 5G for years – analyst

Not only will Apple lag its competitors by at least a year in launching a 5G phone, it might still suck anyway according to a semiconductor analyst.

Bloomberg apparently got hold of a research note from Matthew Ramsay, who heads up the TMT semiconductor business at Cowen. He seems to reckon Apple has boxed itself into a corner by ditching Qualcomm as a 5G modem supplier and is now seriously short of good options in that area. He also expressed surprised that Apple has allowed this situation to develop.

Ramsay detailed four main options for Apple for 5G, but he doesn’t think any of them are great. The first is what is generally assumed: that Apple will launch 18 months behind the competition with an Intel 5G modem that is expected to be inferior and not even support mmWave. The recent MWC show saw the first 5G phones launched but Apple tends to announce new iPhones in September, hence the big lag.

Rubbish option number two is to see if anyone else can help Apple out on the modem side of things. But Huawei is off the table due to all the aggro it’s getting from the US and Samsung would be likely to ruthlessly exploit its overwhelmingly strong bargaining position, since it’s another of the long list of companies Apple is on frosty terms with. Other than that there’s Taiwanese MediaTek, but Ramsay seems to think it’s even further behind than Intel.

A third, highly implausible, option would be for Apple and Qualcomm to kiss and make up. Not only does there seem to have been too many things said that can’t be unsaid in their bitter legal dispute, but that would be an utter humiliation for Apple and surely Qualcomm wouldn’t be able to resist imposing punitive terms. Having said that, sometimes pragmatism and enlightened self-interest prevail, but we would be amazed if they did in this case.

The last option would be for Apple to buy Intel’s modem business from it in order to accelerate the development process. This would be expensive but Apple can certainly afford it. There is, however, no guarantee Apple would improve on Intel’s efforts since modems are hardly a core competence. It’s even less likely that Apple would be able to make a material improvement in the next year or two.

A fifth option not posited by Ramsay would be for an even longer delay in bringing a 5G phone to market. Apple is brilliant at marketing and could easily throw resources at belittling 5G in the short term to downplay the significance of its absence from that market. That argument would certainly find some sympathy from us in the short term, but it would surely start to wear thin before long.

Qualcomm upgrades its 5G modem

Mobile chip maker Qualcomm has unveiled its big MWC news early, in the form of the X55 5G modem, which is five better than its predecessor.

The new modem supports both flavours of 5G as well as all the older Gs and all the spectrum bands you could possibly want. It’s manufactured on a 7nm process and promises download speeds of 7 Gbps and 3 Gbps uploads speeds. The previous X50 modem only managed a mere 4 Gbps. Even the Cat 22 LTE part manages 2.5 Gbps download.

“With significant evolution in capabilities and performance, our second generation commercial 5G modem is a true testament to the maturity and leadership of our 5G technology,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “We expect our 5G platform to accelerate 5G commercial momentum and power virtually all 5G launches in 2019 while significantly expanding the global 5G rollout footprint.”

That ‘virtually all 5G launches’ claim could be challenged in as little as a week. We may well see some 5G handset launches at Mobile World Congress and one of the biggest smartphone vendors – Huawei – has already launched its own 5G modem. Apple doesn’t bother with MWC but has indicated it would sooner make a bonfire out of iPhones then even be in the same room as Qualcomm.

Seeking modem autonomy is perfectly understandable but Qualcomm reckons it’s pretty far ahead of the chasing pack when it comes to the tech. Huawei’s speed claims don’t seem too far off Qualcomm’s but it’s not yet known how they compare when it comes to size, power efficiency, etc. And apart from Huawei and Apple Qualcomm will probably own the rest of the 5G market.

Snapdragon X55 claims to be the first announced modem to support 100 MHz envelope tracking technology, and adaptive antenna tuning for 5G sub-6 GHz, designed for power-efficient connectivity. Qualcomm can also presumably offer it integrated into the Snapdragon 855 SoC and thus cater to all your mobile chip needs. Here’s a vid.

 

Apple steps up in-house modem efforts – report

Its dispute with Qualcomm seems to have pushed Apple towards developing its own modem in-house so it no longer has to rely on external suppliers.

Apple has been making its own application processors for years thanks to the ARM IP licensing business model and the acquisition of PA Semi not long after the iPhone was launched. Making a competitive modem is a much trickier proposition, however, which is why Apple continued to pay Qualcomm for the job however deeply it resented doing so.

Following the collapse in relations between them it looked like Apple was going to turn to Intel for all its modem needs, but a report from Reuters would seem to indicate that’s not the long term plan for Apple, and that it would rather have full control over its modem destiny.

Apparently Apple has now shifted its modem silo from the supply chain unit to the hardware design one. Accordingly Johny Srouji, who heads up the hardware side of things at Apple, will now also have to deal with this future modem. This especially makes sense since Srouji, who worked at Intel for a while, was brought in in 2008 to head up the in-house SoC side of things.

The benefits of doing as much manufacturing in-house are clear, especially for products as integrated as Apple ones, but Qualcomm has a clear lead when it comes to modem design. What if the future Apple modem is an order of magnitude slower than Qualcomm – what kind of effect might that have on iPhone sales? We’ll probably find out in a few years.

Huawei launches its own 5G chip

Huawei doesn’t feel like waiting for chip companies to get their act together on 5G so it has decided to make one of its own.

The Balong 5000 was launched in Beijing today. It supports all the previous generations of cellular technology as well as all the 5G frequencies. Huawei says it can deliver 4.6 Gbps at sub-6 Ghz and 6.5 Gbps over millimeter wave. It also claims to be the first chip to support both standalone and non-standalone 5G architectures and the first to support V2X communications.

“The Balong 5000 will open up a whole new world to consumers,” said Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group. “It will enable everything to sense, and will provide the high-speed connections needed for pervasive intelligence.”

Huawei also launched the 5G CPR Pro, a 5G router that uses wifi 6 technology to claim speeds of almost 5 Gbps. “Powered by the Balong 5000, the Huawei 5G CPE Pro enables consumers to access networks more freely and enjoy an incredibly fast connected experience,” said Yu. “Huawei has an integrated set of capabilities across chips, devices, cloud services, and networks. Building on these strengths, as the leader of the 5G era, we will bring an inspired, intelligent experience to global consumers in every aspect of their lives.”

Not content with attacking the consumer market, Huawei also launched the Tiangang 5G base station chip. It too lays claim to having all the bells and whistles, including the ability to control 64 beamforming channels, enhanced computing capacity and greater power efficiency.

“Huawei now has industry-leading capabilities to deliver end-to-end 5G, with simplified 5G networks and simplified operations & maintenance,” said said Ryan Ding, Huawei Executive Director of the Board and Carrier Business Group CEO. “We are leading the commercial rollout of 5G, and building a mature industry ecosystem.”

These launches come at a good time for Huawei, considering all the negative publicity it has been getting recently. Yu used the launch event to make some pretty bullish statements, including his belief that Huawei will overtake Samsung to become the world’s number one smartphone vendor before long. He also teased the launch of a foldable 5G phone at MWC in a month’s time.

Intel brings forward launch of 5G modem in bid to silence doubters

Apple’s decision to go all-in on Intel modems comes with a lot of pressure, so Intel is desperate to convince us it’s up to the task.

A week ago reports appeared to confirm that Apple’s first 5G phones will come in 2020 and will exclusively use Intel modems. Telecoms.com was among the commentators asking whether or not this would turn out to be a rash decision by Apple, with rival Qualcomm expected to be ahead in the 5G modem race.

Intel seems to have taken this scepticism as a personal challenge and has consequently announced it will now be launching it more than half a year sooner than previously thought. The Intel XM 8160 5G modem will now be released into the wild in the second half of 2019, although there’s nothing in the announcement to indicate it will power an iPhone that soon, with the September 2020 models still the likely recipients.

In fact Intel says the earliest you will see it in devices is in the first half of 2020, which does beg the question of whether this ‘bringing forward’ of the launch is purely cosmetic. Could Intel have merely tweaked the definition of ‘launch’ to allow for some kind of meaningless soft-launch six months earlier. Maybe Qualcomm will retaliate with a similar move.

“Intel’s new XMM 8160 5G modem provides the ideal solution to support large volumes for scaling across multiple device categories to coincide with broad 5G deployments” said Cormac Conroy, GM of Intel’s Communication and Devices Group. “We are seeing great demand for the advanced feature set of the XMM 8160, such that we made a strategic decision to pull in the launch of this modem by half a year to deliver a leading 5G solution.”

The fact that the XMM 8160 is ‘multimode’, supporting 5G NR in SA and NSA modes across multiple frequencies, as well as legacy wireless standards is something Intel is keen to flag up. So much so it did a special diagram.

The Intel XMM 8160 5G modem will offer very clear improvements in power, size and scalability in a package that will be smaller than a U.S. penny. It will be released in the second half of 2019, and it will support the new standard for 5G New Radio (NR) standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) modes as well as 4G, 3G and 2G legacy radios in a single chipset. (Credit: Intel Corporation)

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.

Intel triggered into joining Qualcomm Apple spat

Qualcomm has accused Intel of cheating at modems with Apple’s help, but Intel’s weak public riposte is unlikely to sway much opinion in its favour.

Judging by the general quality of their press releases all three of the companies involved in this spat refuse to issue a single public utterance until every syllable has been pored over by battalions of lawyers. As a consequence, when they decide to slag each other off via the media the result falls pretty far short of Wildean in its wit.

To be fair to Qualcomm, its latest allegations weren’t strictly public, although you have to wonder what the source of the court filing leak that resulted in the rest of the world knowing about it was. Essentially Qualcomm is questioning how Apple was able to replace its modems with Intel ones in the latest iPhones and figured it must have given Intel trade secrets to ensure its modems were up to the job.

Intel’s General Counsel Steven Rodgers posted a riposte entitled ‘Qualcomm’s Rhetoric Pierced’, which promised all kinds of rebuttals, refutations and rebukes but instead delivered a disappointingly generic whinge that amounted to ‘how dare you?’ It started fairly promisingly with a round up of all the fines Qualcomm has been hit with over the past couple of years for violating competition laws.

But then it degenerated into a general purpose moan about how unfair the allegations are when everyone at Intel works really hard, actually. “We are proud of our engineers and employees who bring the world’s best technology solutions to market through hard work, sweat, risk-taking and great ideas,” pouted Rodgers. “Every day, we push the boundaries of computing and communication technologies. And, the proof is in the pudding: Last year, the U.S. Patent Office awarded more patents to Intel than to Qualcomm.”

The correct form of the proverb is ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’, but if Intel chooses to keep its patents inside some form of dessert, who are we to judge? “For the most part, we have chosen, and will continue to choose, to respond to Qualcomm’s statements in court, not in public,” said Rogers, showing the acute judgment that you would expect of a senior Lawyer. Qualcomm has yet to publicly respond.

Samsung claims first 3GPP-compliant 5G modem

Korean electronics giant Samsung reckons it has edged ahead of Qualcomm in the 5G modem race.

The Exynos Modem 5100 claims to be ‘the industry’s first 5G modem that is fully compatible with 3GPP Release 15’. Qualcomm announced its X50 5G modem some time ago and seemed to have an early monopoly on 5G chips. But with Apple apparently making it clear it won’t be using Qualcomm 5G chips there is a stronger incentive than ever for its competitors to catch up.

“Samsung’s leadership in communication technologies and market-proven knowledge allowed us to develop the industry’s first 5G modem, the Exynos Modem 5100, which fully complies with the latest 3GPP standards,” said Dr. Inyup Kang, president and head of System LSI Business at Samsung Electronics. “As the industry prepares the shift toward 5G, Samsung will continue to drive the growth of innovative ideas and new services in mobile applications and other emerging industries.”

The chip is manufactured on the 10nm process and Samsung has the advantage of owning its own semiconductor fabs. It supports both mmWave and sub-6 GHz spectrum as well as all the legacy wireless technologies. Samsung says it has completed some testing, but doesn’t seem to have released the modem into the wild yet.

Qualcomm claims 5G NR mmWave antenna breakthrough

A new set of antenna modules announced by Qualcomm promise to bring the power of millimetre wave to devices soon.

The catchily-named Qualcomm QTM052 mmWave antenna module family is designed to join forces with the Snapdragon X50 modem to enable smartphones, tablets etc to live the 5G dream. Qualcomm also launched the QPM56xx sub-6 GHz RF module family to offer devices the use of a full range of 5G spectrum.

“Today’s announcement of the first commercial 5G NR mmWave antenna modules and sub-6 GHz RF modules for smartphones and other mobile devices represents a major milestone for the mobile industry,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon. “Qualcomm Technologies’ early investment in 5G has allowed us to deliver to the industry a working mobile mmWave solution that was previously thought unattainable, as well as a fully-integrated sub-6 GHz RF solution.

“Now, these type of modem-to-antenna solutions, spanning both mmWave and sub-6 spectrum bands, make mobile 5G networks and devices, especially smartphones, ready for large scale commercialization. With 5G, consumers can expect gigabit-class Internet speeds with unprecedented responsiveness in the palm of their hands, which stand to revolutionize the mobile experience.”

The physics of these chips seems to be where the biggest breakthroughs occurred, specifically their size and thermal properties. Making mmWave chips viable in the very tight physical environment of the smartphone is a significant challenge and chip analyst Charlie Demerjian reckons this launch puts Qualcomm very much in the 5G driving seat.

Qualcomm QTM052 cent