Thanks to the patent war with Qualcomm reaching a crescendo mode, last year Apple's iPhones shipped exclusively with "Intel inside" as far as cellular connectivity is concerned. That, however, is not an ideal solution for Apple, as Intel's modems are behind the curve when it comes to features, so it has been shopping around for other options.
Apple could go with Samsung, Huawei or MediaTek's 5G modems, but each of those choices comes with severe drawbacks. Samsung will likely charge an arm and a leg for its 5G brainchild, America's homeland security institutions would balk at Huawei's involvement due to geopolitical considerations, while MediaTek simply isn't up to par yet.
Samsung's 5G modem option is out for Apple, but whose is in?
Surprise, surprise, even those unpalatable options have now become harder to pick from, as Korean media is reporting today that Samsung has declined Apple's advances for its Exynos 5100 5G modem. Not only does the company need its production for the Galaxy S10 5G
that will be shipping tomorrow in Korea but it could very well need it for the Note 10
Samsung, it turns out, is simply unable to churn out 5G modems in the quality and quantity that Apple would demand, or so it claims. According to one "electronics industry official" there:
Apple inquired about the supply of 5G modem chip from Samsung Electronics System LSI division. However, we know that Samsung Electronics System LSI answered that the supply volume of its smartphone 5G modem chip is insufficient.
There you have it - unless Apple resolves the bad blood between the companies, Qualcomm is likely to sit its 5G push out, so the last remaining option is for Apple to go it alone, either by acquiring Intel's wireless modem assets or starting from scratch (highly unlikely). All of these options mean either a lot of extra expenses for Apple in order to deliver a 5G iPhone in 2020, or falling behind the competition by launching one that is a cycle or two behind.
Last summer, insiders claimed that they have seen internal Intel communication regarding a memo that Apple sent Chipzilla. In it, Apple warns that it might no longer need Intel's wireless modem designs, including the 5G ones, starting with the 2020 iPhone crop. Intel reportedly halted research in this area and might disband the whole 5G modem undertaking, as Apple was its largest and perhaps sole customer.
5G gets going and Apple's 2020 iPhones can't go FOMO
South Korea just launched its nationwide 5G network, with the Galaxy S10
5G being its poster child. Upon the phone's release there tomorrow, Korea will have all of its largest networks offering 5G plans. In fact, Korea Telecom announced three 5G price tiers
. Among those, there is a "Super Plan" that offers truly unlimited 5G data without speed caps, and this one will go for the equivalent of $70, a pretty good price no matter how you slice it. In fact, the Super 5G Plan is somewhat cheaper than the current unlimited 4G LTE plans in Korea, so the 5G future seems bright, and we are expecting more and more 5G handsets to enter the fray this year, especially towards the tail end of 2019.
A true nationwide shift to 5G networks is not happening this year in the US anyway, so iPhone users won't be missing all that much until then. Next year, however, most of the flagship phones of the spring season will probably have some sort of 5G connectivity support, be it with a Qualcomm, Samsung or Huawei modem, and Apple could feel the pinch in that regard. If in the fall of 2020 Apple hasn't solved its 5G modem supply options, however, there might be image and perception consequences. As virtually all of Apple's 5G avenues have dried up and will incur extra expenses, patching thing up with Qualcomm would be a smart solution so we'll keep our eyes on the patent lawsuit as it moves through the court system.