Apple is expected to wait until 2020 before it releases a 5G version of its iPhone, but even with a time frame that puts a potential launch after rivals such as Samsung, Apple may still struggle to get the necessary components to build the product.
According to a report from investment bank and financial services company Cowen, Apple is "in a difficult position" given its reliance on Intel's modem products, and it has four options to deal with the situation, "none of which is ideal."
Added analyst Matthew Ramsay, "our industry contacts at MWC remained as surprised as we are that Apple is in this situation," referring to the Mobile World Congress, a conference dedicated to the wireless industry.
Shares of Apple fell 0.2 percent in early trading. Intel was lower by 0.7 percent.
Apple's first option, Cowen wrote, is to "launch 18 months after 5G competition with an inferior modem from Intel likely without mmWave capabilities," referring to the band of spectrum that can be used for 5G's high-speed wireless communications.
Another option would be to "source a 5G modem from chief competitor Samsung," Cowen wrote, though it added that would likely come only on "tough commercial terms." Using a 5G modem from Huawei is "off the table as an option," Cowen told clients, while "MediaTek's stack is too far behind in terms of timeline."
Apple could also settle its disputes with Qualcomm and revert back to its modems, but Cowen asked, "might it be too late already?" The two firms have been locked in a multi-year legal battle surrounding patent infringements.
The company's fourth option would be to purchase Intel's modem business and develop the necessary components internally. Cowen wrote that this was "a reasonable but expensive long-term solution," and one that "would be VERY difficult against a 2H20 timeline."
Shares of Apple have gained more than 20 percent from a January low that followed a lower sales forecast. On Monday, Apple closed at its highest level since early December, although it remains 24 percent below a record high hit in October. Much of the weakness has been fueled by weak demand for the iPhone, Apple's flagship product, and analysts have been hoping that a 5G version will reinvigorate sales.