Intel’s journey on 5G has been quite an interesting one. The company was it’s slated to compete with the likes of Qualcomm, Huawei, and Samsung in 5G. Eventually, after a few stumbles, the company fell short of expectations and ended up spinning off the majority of the company’s efforts in a $1 billion transaction with Apple that put a question mark around Intel’s client 5G strategy. Ever since the announcement back in April that Intel was getting out of the modem business, there has been a cloud hanging over exactly what Intel planned to do for 5G in client devices since it effectively sold off its modem business. I and many others in the industry saw this coming years ago, and I even detailed the scene earlier this year.
Intel + MediaTek
With all of that behind us, Intel has decided to disclose its first answer to the 5G question for its computing platforms. Intel has announced that the company will be partnering with MediaTek on the development and implementation of 5G for PCs. More specifically, the partnership will take a slightly modified version of MediaTek’s current M70 5G modem and work to integrate it into PC platforms, which includes both the hardware and software engineering that will be necessary to work in a PC. Intel will lend MediaTek its system integration and co-engineering support to help support OEMs, which may help MediaTek ship even more modems than it had ever expected. MediaTek is, without a doubt, a volume player in the market, mostly playing in the mid-tier and low-end of the market but is starting to make moves that break the company out of that shell, including this one. The two companies expect to have products with the fruits of this 5G partnership shipping in early 2021, more than a year from now.
The interesting part about this announcement is that because MediaTek is mostly a billion mobile and embedded player, there are very few conflicts between MediaTek and Intel. This partnership makes sense from a competitive angle and makes a statement as far as Intel’s position on Qualcomm’s modems. Qualcomm has shown quite a dominant position in 5G with the vast majority of 5G phones and devices shipping with its X50 modem this year and more launching late this year with the company’s 2nd generation X55 modem. However, Intel made it quite clear that it decided to move forward with MediaTek on the modem side when it comes to laptops, which means that any laptop using the Intel solution with MediaTek will be a Sub-6GHz only solution for the foreseeable future as MediaTek has yet to give a concrete timeframe on mmWave support.
Intel will be integrating MediaTek’s 5G modem with its Wi-Fi 6, which will deliver a comprehensive connectivity solution to those wanting to have access to the latest wireless standards. Intel isn’t quite committing to a date and time when 5G will be a requirement for programs like Intel’s Project Athena, but I expect that in 3 or 4 years, we could probably see it become a standard. Intel will also tap Fibocom to develop the M.2 modules optimized for Intel’s platform scene it is unclear who Intel will use for its 5G front-end solution. The front-end will be crucial for supporting enough bands and operators globally, which Intel claims it’s already working with 20 global carriers and will support dozens of, but I would like to see more details on that. MediaTek hasn’t stated what the M70 could do in terms of band support, which is primarily dependent on the RF front-end.
More 5G opportunities
What’s interesting about this announcement is that by the time devices do launch with this modem, in 2021, we will most likely be on an entirely different generation of modems from the likes of Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung, MediaTek’s main competitors in the modem space. That said, this announcement plugs a hole in Intel’s long-term PC strategy, as many wondered how it would be able to compete in the future of mobile PCs without a 5G modem solution. What’s also interesting is that Intel hinted at a 5G partnership with Samsung as well, which I thought would have more detail, but may have been waiting for this announcement to happen first. I suspect that Intel may be dual sourcing its modems for 5G from MediaTek and Samsung, with Samsung possibly being for mmWave solutions or just a pure second source. Nonetheless, Intel had quite a prominent presence at Samsung’s developer conference late last month, and part of that was the announcement of its deeper partnership with Samsung, which included a very small mention of 5G. The potential 5G partnership is relevant because there’s very little to no chance that Samsung will ship a MediaTek modem in its PCs since it sees MediaTek as a competitor.
Getting back to mobile 5G
Intel previously had a complete end-to-end 5G strategy that involved its chips at every single point of the value chain. While Intel no longer has that complete end-to-end answer with its products, it has found a good partner to grow with them on the client side of 5G. I believe that this helps to shore up Intel’s end-to-end 5G strategy and story, but early 2021 is also quite a way away from now, especially in the mobile market. Thankfully for Intel, at this moment, it still as a pretty strong position in the PC market, but it does have challenges coming from AMD and Qualcomm that are proving a challenge. I believe that Intel had to go out and acquire MediaTek’s 5G modem to shield themselves from not having a 5G PC solution while Qualcomm will be shipping 5G PCs next year in 2020. I believe that Intel had to find a 5G modem partner to calm OEM nerves about Intel’s answer to Qualcomm’s 5G challenge. It remains to be seen how much power and performance this Intel + MediaTek solution will have compared to Qualcomm, but I welcome Intel getting back into client 5G, and we will have to wait until 2021 to get that answer.