iPhone 13 to have Apple-made 5G modem – here's why that matters

Future iPhones’ 5G will be slicker in the cities, and bring better battery life

iPhone 12
(Image credit: Apple)

Apple’s making its own 5G modem, and it might even appear in the iPhone 13 in 2021. The modem will be a high-end product with a particular focus on ultra-fast mmWave 5G, a flavour of 5G that delivers gigabit speeds in urban areas, and it should deliver improved battery life too.

The modem was announced by Apple hardware VP Johny Srouji, who told Apple employees in a town hall meeting that “this year, we kicked off the development of our first internal cellular modem which will enable another key strategic transition.”

Speaking to MacRumors, industry analysts Blayne Curtis, Thomas O’Malley and Tim Long added more detail: “We believe that Apple has actually been working on this 5G model for over a year and that this is very much a high-end modem, including support and chipset for mmWave,” they said.

The news of an Apple-designed 5G modem is not a huge surprise: when Apple bought most of Intel’s smartphone business in 2019, Johny Srouji said that “Apple is excited to have so many excellent engineers join our growing cellular technologies group” – a group that was already reportedly working on its own modem chip. Previous reports indicated that Apple had set a 2022 deadline for the project.

If the analysts are correct and the modem was already in development in 2019, that suggests an iPhone with an Apple modem may be with us sooner than previously predicted.

An Apple modem could mean better battery life

One good reason for Apple making its own modem is to make it smaller. The 5G circuitry inside an iPhone 12 is quite large, and that means it's taking up room that might otherwise be used to give iPhones larger batteries.

The iPhone 12 actually has a slightly smaller battery than the iPhone 11, seemingly because of the amount of space that the chunky 5G gear takes up… yet offers the same amount of battery life as the older phone. 

If Apple makes its own modems, it could design a more space-efficient way to integrate the 5G modem as part of if its overall chip design, which means the space saved can go into bigger batteries, giving a sudden leap forward in longevity.

Why mmWave 5G matters

Apple introduced 5G mmWave in the iPhone 12, but it’s only in US models: those are the only iPhones to support the frequency bands that mmWave uses. Everybody else uses what’s called sub-6GHz 5G, which is slower but works at much bigger distances. 

mmWave uses much higher frequency bands, from 24GHz to 40GHz, and in theory it can go as fast as 5Gbps. But it can’t go fast for very far: it’s short range and is easily blocked, so it runs out of puff a fairly short distance from the nearest cell tower. That means it’s very much an urban technology, and it could be particularly useful in very densely used places such as at sports arenas or at concerts and festivals. 

US operators are already using mmWave and it’s begun a slow rollout in Europe too.

Why Apple's making its own modems

It’s part of Apple’s ongoing drive to own and control the key technologies in its products, a drive that’s also brought us the A-series chips in iPhones and iPads, the W1 and H1 chips in AirPods and AirPods Pro and the M1 processors in the new MacBook and MacBook Pro

That drive has been dubbed “the Tim Cook doctrine”: speaking in 2009, Cook said that “we believe that we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products we make”.