Steve Jobs must have known this was in the works.

Asked again last month why he hadn’t built a 3G iPhone, Apple’s (AAPL) CEO replied that he was waiting for a chipset that would allow him to deliver 3G speeds with something close to the eight hour talk time the slower EDGE-based iPhone gets now. “Hopefully we’ll see that late next year,” he said.

He may not have to wait that long. In what could be a preview of the next-generation iPhone, chipmaker Broadcom (BRCM) announced yesterday that it had begun sending manufacturers samples of an integrated device it’s calling a “3G Phone On a Chip.” The chipset’s features read like an iPhone hold-out’s wishlist. They include:

  • a 3G baseband transceiver supporting download speeds of up to 7.2 megabits per second
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • an FM radio receiver
  • an FM radio transmitter (for car stereo playback)
  • multimedia support for a 5 megapixal camera
  • 30 frames per second video with “TV out”
  • support for EDGE, HSUPA, HSDPA, and WCDMA

It doesn’t do GPS, Wi-Fi or windows.

While Broadcom did not offer battery life estimates, it does describe the chip as “extremely low power.”

The BCM21551 was delivered to manufacturers in small quantities yesterday will be available in bulk for $23 apiece. This is one chip Jobs may be tempted to hoard, because if Apple doesn’t buy it, its competitors surely will.

Or not. In an oddly time piece, Blackfriar’s Carl Howe, who is usually pretty well plugged in to Apple, today published his five reasons why Apple’s iPhone Doesn’t Need 3G. Latency, he says, is more important than bandwidth. Besides, he adds, high bandwidth radio networks are more error prone. Hmmm.

For more on the Broadcom chipset, see Eric Bangeman’s piece in Ars Technica.