With Mobile World Congress just around the corner, it’s now time for every vendor related to wireless services and products to bring its best, including companies like Intel. I am told by sources the company will really “bring it” to Barcelona with announcements of a gigabit-class 4G LTE modem with CDMA support, following the recently announced global 5G modem supporting both mmWave and sub-6GHz technology. These announcements will definitely make the 4G and 5G space a lot more interesting and more competitive. Before I go into what Intel may announce in Barcelona, I want to take a quick step back to talk about Intel’s 4G progress and its 5G strategy.
Progress on 4G LTE earns “wireless player”
As I’ve previously said, if a company can’t do 4G, the likelihood of it doing 5G is very, very low. Intel had been in an uphill battle with its 4G modem business for years, and until it shipped inside the non-CDMA versions of the Apple iPhone 7 last year, I questioned what the wireless future held for the company. I believe Intel needs to repeat this over and over to be deemed fully successful and turn it into a profitable business, but the iPhone win elevated it in my book to “wireless player.” Intel has a much stronger 4G LTE position now and has committed itself to 5G.
“End-to-end” 5G strategy
Intel is approaching 5G from an “end to end” position, spanning virtually all the company’s businesses from cloud data center, core network, access network and wireless technology to smart devices. This is a good strategy for it as it leverages their strongest areas like data centers and fulfills many of the programmable network needs carriers are looking for. I’m not convinced yet that having a broad approach would make its 5G modems more competitive, but I’ll wait and see, but it certainly gives stronger strategic bargaining power with the carriers and carrier equipment vendors.
Intel 5G Modem, the first 5G modem announced with mmWave and sub-6ghz.
Intel has repeatedly promised it would turn a new leaf with its modem business versus 4G when it came to 5G, and that appears to be true to what I am hearing on Intel’s plans for its modem business ahead of MWC 2017.
At CES Intel announced the company’s first 5G modem that is capable of both mmWave and sub-6GHz connectivity and is expected to sample 2H 17. At this moment, it is the first announced modem in the world to support both mmWave and sub-6Ghz supporting the 5G new radio (NR) technologies.
It’s a bit hard to officially say support for both because technically, the 5G NR standards have not been fully agreed to by the 3GPP organization, even though they have been mostly agreed to. However, Intel has stated the 5G modem is compliant with multiple industry forum pre-5G specifications, including the Verizon 5GTF and KT SIG specifications, which precede the nascent but all-important 3GPP NR specification. A 3GPP meeting in March in Dubrovnik, Croatia immediately following MWC 201, will determine which features get cemented into the 5G NR standard and then all players in the industry can move forward.
Additionally, Intel says the supported frequencies for its 5G modem are 3.3-4.2 GHz portion of the sub-6Ghz bands, enabling deployments and trials in China and Europe with flexible sub-channelization, and supports 28 GHz, enabling deployments and trials in the U.S., Korea and Japan. The modem pairs with Intel sub-6GHz and 28GHz RFICs to deliver global reach to 5G trials and deployments. The Intel 5G Modem is manufactured using Intel’s own 14nm process, which would make it among the first modems produced in-house.
The speed with which Intel is moving is also extremely impressive as the company is working closely with a broad group of partners to do 5G trials around the world. These include recently completing a successful 5GTF connection in Oulu, Finland with Nokia using Intel’s 5G mobile trial platform, which adheres to Verizon’s own pre-5G standard.
5G use cases for Intel
I expect Intel to lean into many different use cases beyond mobile phones with 5G. These could be future 5G applications including VR and other forms of media, as well as intelligent homes and buildings, smart cities and autonomous vehicles. These applications are highly expected to be use cases for 5G and make sense that Intel would accentuate them.
The more that Intel can show 5G working as a real technology rather than a theoretical one and beyond mobile phones will help the company reinforce their position as one of the leaders in 5G. Ultimately, the company is starting to show that it is moving from being a distant follower in wireless technologies to a leader and that’s extremely important for it.
Intel’s first gigabit-class 4G LTE modem with CDMA support
Intel’s approach to 5G still appears to be very enterprise-focused with a lot of discussions about data centers, fixed wireless and automobiles. It has expressed confidence in being able to deliver a 5G mobile device soon, however it remains to be seen when that might be. 5G radios are extremely complex and having one in addition to a 4G radio on a mobile device will be extremely difficult and power hungry, regardless of whose chips they are.
My sources have said they expect to be pairing their 5G modem along with LTE modems such as Intel’s XMM 7360 for 4G fallback, and 4G/5G interworking. Intel has already announced a new LTE modem last year, the XMM 7480, and appears to be accelerating its LTE roadmap as my sources say they are about to announce a Gigabit LTE modem with CDMA capability and is also produced in-house on Intel’s 14nm process. CDMA support can give Intel access to many more networks in the U.S. from Verizon and Sprint and China Telecom.
No matter how you cut it, Intel has made significant strides in their wireless capabilities with 4G, and Intel’s 5G announcements are a clear illustration of its commitment to the space. We are still very early in the development of 5G and we still have quite a way to go until anyone can say which 5G-technology company is in the lead in a specific area. Given the breadth of 5G, there will be many places to lead in verticals and horizontal platforms, anywhere from 5G in a gas leak sensor to a wearable, a smartphone, a computer, a car or a connected light pole.
There is a ton of proving to be done for the entire 5G ecosystem. Until we have commercial 5G networks and commercial 5G devices, those crowns will remain unclaimed. But for now, we are starting to see some serious competition in the 5G space, something that we truly lacked in the 4G LTE era. It will also be interesting to see how important 4G technology leadership impacts 5G designs and whether 4G is a major factor.
After all, 10 years from now, I believe we may look back on 5G as probably the most transformational technology of the last decade.