Apple sees 6G as strategically important to its future

Apple has thousands of engineers within its silicon development teams working on a range of projects, including processors, graphics chips and, of course, modems.

And while the modem development work is clearly slower than expected, at Apple the end of some projects is not always the beginning and that is why it is now focusing on the next big networking standard, 6G.

Apple’s been saying/not saying this for some time, via its usual outlets of speculation, rumor, and media proxies. It leaves a lot of what we think we know sitting firmly beyond the wall of industry speculation in a place more cynical eyes see as “plausible deniability.”

But we do know some things

But some things are in the clear.

In recent years, we’ve seen Apple improve its relationship with Qualcomm, extend its 5G modem supply deal with Qualcomm, and invest billions in internal silicon development — particularly in its Munich center, where many former Intel modem engineers are based.

We’ve also seen Apple ink deals with GlobalStar to put SOS messages sent by iPhones into space. That deal is extending globally, the free component was recently extended by at least another year, and we all know that some elements of the 6G future mobile networking standard extends into space with use of things like beamforming, MIMO and more. (Apple is already assembling patents to use satellite in various ways.)

That, incidentally, is why so many companies and governments are spending eye-watering amounts of money shoving Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites up there just as fast as they can. (Though every time a new one goes up there you can’t help but imagine watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity [recommended]).

So, what else is happening?

So, what else is there that combines mobile networking with space? At present not much beyond hook-ups like satellite communications and SOS for iPhone – but that changes in the future with 6G.

That’s why today’s experiment in plausible deniability seems to make interesting sense, as a new Apple recruitment ad appears seeking a high-level engineer to lead on the design of a 6G reference architecture.

It is important not to read too much into that, of course. After all, we already know Apple is getting involved in 6G so it’s no surprise at all that it is ramping up its R&D investment in the tech.

Why? Because everyone in the industry thinks 6G will be important to the future of connected everything, particularly smart transport.

Making a difference one standard at a time

But what’s really different here is that with literally years of Intel modem work under its belt, Apple’s next-gen tech boffins now have a chance not just to play catch-up in terms of the deployment of a standard, but to find ways in which to contribute to the standard itself. They didn’t really have that momentum during 5G standards development.

One way to do this, of course, is to develop reference architecture suggestions for 6G.

In the event components of the eventual final standard happen to have been designed and developed by Apple R&D, then the company will have a far more equal negotiating position when it comes to 6G modem manufacturing.

That’s what happens when you own engineering patents, even under the FRAAND agreements that Apple saw so sorely tested in its lengthy spat with Samsung.

What I’m saying is there are really good strategic reasons for Apple to want to get its hands deep and dirty into 6G development.

Not only does the company have the (supermassivebig) $30 billion R&D budget to contribute to the eventual evolution of that standard, but the company has every mobile device reason in the world to want to get ahead of that strategic curve.

After all, if it wants to own the means of production (or at least enough of the eventual technologies used in production) it makes sense to define the category, or some of it, on its own terms.

Moon shots take time

This is a long-range bet, of course. The 6G standard won’t be ratified until maybe 2030 and things may change a lot between here and then. However, if Apple can build a moat within whatever standard is introduced it protects its own business by having a say in future standard evolution. Note that as well as working within the 3GPP, Apple is also a member of ASTI offshoot the Next G Alliance, an industry group tasked with establishing, “North American preeminence in the 5G evolutionary path and 6G development.”

Apple likely hopes to maintain better integration between future 6G modems and its own hardware and have a more solid negotiating position with modem makers such as its frenemies at Qualcomm.

In the meantime, I don’t accept claims that Apple’s 5G modem development has come to an end. I do think the mission may have changed a little as Apple pumps investment into accelerating the move to 6G beyond 2030, so I say watch that space.

In the end, change is a wave, and as Steve Jobs onec said, “If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.”

And in mobile networking, at least, it’s 6G, not 5G, that’s coming up next. And Apple is thinking about it.

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Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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