Smartphone companies look to bring modem development in-house

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Despite reports that Google would announce its first 5G phone at its Made By Google event, the Pixel 4’s launch came and went with no mention of the next-generation wireless standard.

1.5 Billion Consumers Will Use 5G Phones By 2024


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Google followed Apple’s lead in this regard, as the latter likewise did not add early access to 5G networks to this year’s batch of iPhones. Nevertheless, we have a good idea of how the companies — and their top competitors in the space — are adding 5G to their phones, and of where they’re turning for key hardware like modems.

Here’s how the big smartphone players are approaching 5G component sourcing.

Samsung has already debuted a number of 5G devices, with some using its own Exynos modems and others relying on Qualcomm. Samsung seems to generally divide this based on geography and the frequency bands that phones must connect to, but overall, it’s been taking steps to reduce its reliance on Qualcomm.

Earlier this year, the California-based semiconductor company claimed that it is the source of 38% of Samsung phone modems overall, while the South Korean tech company supplies 52% of modems internally, and the remainder comes from other vendors. Samsung could look to continue bringing more chip-making efforts internally to reduce reliance on outside vendors as it accelerates 5G efforts.

Huawei’s first 5G foray, the Mate 20 X 5G, eschews Qualcomm’s modems in favor of an internally developed modem alongside a Huawei-designed chipset. As Huawei remains on a US Department of Commerce entity list that prohibits US companies from selling or licensing its many technologies, the company has moved to make more of its supply chain internal or China-based. Its forthcoming 5G phones will almost assuredly use its own modems, both for cost purposes and to ensure that its supply chain won’t be disrupted by geopolitical wrangling.

Apple is widely expected to release a 5G iPhone in 2020 equipped with a Qualcomm modem, but reports also indicate it may launch 5G smartphones with its own 5G modems in 2022. Apple purchased Intel’s 5G modem development unit this past summer as a means, we theorized, of breaking free of Qualcomm’s modems.

By reducing its reliance on the likes of Qualcomm and Intel — both of which supplied iPhone components in the past — Apple can reduce costs and further optimize chips and modems for its devices, potentially improving battery life and performance. Bringing more operations in-house would, however, put a greater burden on internal development teams, and leave Apple without an outside party to lean on should that process go awry.

Google, however, seems set to follow a traditional design and development path as it moves into 5G. Google has given no indication that it will build its own 5G modems, nor has it backed away from relying on Qualcomm’s flagship chipsets for its Pixel smartphones.

As the search giant pushes to introduce 5G Pixels — most likely next year, with the Pixel 5 — it will likely adhere to the typical phone manufacturer model, designing the device but using a key partner to provide most chips and modems. This is a lower-risk approach, as Google will avoid the possibility of delays related to in-house chip development, but it also means that costs for Google will remain around current levels (or slightly higher for next-gen hardware).

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