Base Station baseband SoC

Could lntel make a new iPhone SoC?

Intel is exploring multiple ways to get itself a coveted iPhone contract, according to reports which refuse to go away. The latest claims that the chip giant has at least 1,000 staff working with Apple on various potential projects, from integrating Intel’s 7360 modem into a future iPhone, to taking on some chip manufacturing for the devices.

The report comes from unnamed sources who spoke to VentureBeat and said Intel was in line to provide modems as well as foundry services.

Either deal would, if it became a reality, be a hugely valuable boost to Intel, not just because of Apple’s chip volumes, but because it would see the chip giant finally ‘arriving’ in the mobile market it has chased for so long. Although it has some contracts for its smartphone processors, and significant sales of the modems it acquired from Infineon, most of its business is with mid-tier OEMs and handset models.

This may change now Intel has its belated integrated processor/modem, SoFIA, and strong Chinese partnerships, but of course that product cannot be sold to Apple, which has its own processor. Instead, Intel may hope to expand its existing relationships with the vendor – notably in the Mac – by replacing Qualcomm in some modem slots with its new flagship, the 7360.

The 7360 modem chip will ship by the end of this year, promising peak downlink speeds of 450Mbps with support for Category 9/10 LTE and triband carrier aggregation. However, Qualcomm’s LTE-Advanced baseband technology remains at the cutting edge, so many expect the 7360 to find a home in a lower end iPhone model, to be launched next year, rather than the top end device.

Meanwhile, a foundry deal, at the expense of Samsung or TSMC, would also be a valuable endorsement for Intel, which has only recently entered this market. Foundry services are something of a pet project of CEO Brian Krzanich, who said on last week’s earnings call: “I do see it still as a growth business. It will not be one of those ones that will largely move the needle in next couple of years, but I see continued growth and acquisition of customers in that space.”

So far the largest customer has been Altera, which Intel is now acquiring, but Chinese partners like Rockchip have spoken of the value of being able to access their investor’s fabs. The talk of an Apple deal – perhaps tied to a modem slot – has been bubbling for a couple of years and has now resurfaced around the idea that Apple will want a more integrated system-on-chip to reduce power consumption and footprint and enable a smaller, cheaper iPhone. That would see Intel working with Apple to integrate its modems with the Ax processor, and then manufacturing the outcome in its highly advanced 14-nanometer FinFet process. Apple would brand the SoC, the report suggests, and license the LTE intellectual property from Intel.

Such a project is demanding a “small army” of Intel employees because of its complexity and Apple’s demanding nature, the sources said, and no deal will be signed unless various milestones are hit.

Another recent event which boosted the idea that Intel is pulling out all the stops to get an Apple deal was its acquisition of the CDMA assets of VIA Telecom, since it previously lacked the CDMA modems which are essential to iPhones for carriers like Verizon.

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