Intel was one of the early noise makers around the upcoming transition from 4G to 5G cellular technology, joining Qualcomm in promising the revolution would change the way we interact with nearly everything around us. Though not exactly a newcomer to the world of wireless technology with the launch of Wi-Max under its belt, Intel has much to prove in the space of wireless communications.
New information this week surrounds Intel’s partnerships with key PC vendors to bring 5G-enabled notebooks to market in late 2019 and a deal with Chinese chip vendor Spreadtrum to use Intel 5G modems in smartphones in late 2019.
The strategy that Intel been progressing with for several years is holistic in nature, covering everything from processors for the cloud server infrastructure and datacenter to network storage to cellular modems and even device-level smart-device chips. This broad and extensive approach provides Intel with some critical advantages. It can leverage the areas where it is considered a leader already for safer bets while diving into riskier areas like the cellular interface itself (modem) where competition from traditional technology providers like Qualcomm lead.
5G Cloud System Advantage
Intel’s core markets in the spectrum of 5G technology lie with systems that depend on hardware designs that the company is already dominant in. Cloud datacenters, for example, are powered today by Intel servers using its Xeon product family that holds more than a decade of unrivaled leadership. Even the network storage and virtualization segments that connect the cloud systems to the cellular networks favor the Intel architecture and design, with years of software development and enterprise expertise under its belt.
Managers and CTOs are intimately familiar with the capabilities and performance that Intel provides in these spaces, and feel more comfortable adopting the company’s chips for the 5G migration coming in 2018 and 2019.
Edge Computing Creates Growth
Edge computing is a new and growing field for systems and represents the migration of higher performance servers from the centralized datacenter to as near to the consumer as possible. This could materialize as hardware living at the site of each cellular antenna or collections of servers distributed to key locations around the country, addressing large urban populations.
As the movement to smart cities, robotics, and multi-purpose drones grows along with 5G, the need for analytics, off-loaded processing, and data storage to be closer to the edge increases. This data and compute proximity lowers dependency on any single datacenter location and improves performance while reducing latency of the interactions.
These edge compute roll-outs will offer a significant revenue growth opportunity all players, including AMD, but Intel’s leadership in the server space will provide increased potential.
Intel Behind in 5G Modems
Moving the discussion to the cellular networks themselves and the need for a 5G modem in devices like smartphones and PCs, Intel has a very different outlook. Modem technology and analog signaling is a more complex field that most understand, and the lack of experience for Intel’s teams is a significant concern. Qualcomm has publicly stated several times that it believe it holds a 12-24 month lead on any competitor in the 5G modem space.
Intel has a 5G modem called the XMM 8060 and at the 2018 Winter Olympics Intel has been demoing 5G technology through various VR experiences. However, the 5G integration in use there is not on the final chip that the XMM 8060 will ship as but instead is a “concept modem” that is used for trials, diagnostics, and product tuning. All technology vendors use this tactic to gain knowledge about products in the design phase, but it’s rare to see significant public demonstrations using them.
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week, Intel will be showing the world’s first 5G-enabled Windows PC. Hot on the heels of Qualcomm touting the future of connected Windows devices shipping this quarter, Intel is eager to assert its dominance in the PC world and showcase the future of mobile computing. Partnering with Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft to enable 5G connectivity alongside Intel Core processors, Intel believes the market will see 10-15% attach rates for cellular modems on notebooks over the next 3-5 years. Computers based around this 5G technology aren’t expected to ship until holiday 2019 and the demoed prototype is still using the “concept modem” from Intel rather than final silicon.
The second announcement from MWC next week is Intel’s partnership with Spreadtrum, a Chinese semiconductor company that builds mobile processors for smartphones. As part of a multi-year agreement, Intel will provide a series of XMM 8000-series 5G enabled modems for Spreadtrum to use in conjunction with its own mobile chips beginning, again, in the second half 2019. Though Spreadtrum is a small SoC vendor globally, having any partners announced this far in advance is a positive sign. However, if you compare this to recent Qualcomm announcements that included 18+ device OEMs that will be using its 5G modems this year, Intel is well behind.
The Apple Possibility
There is one possible exception: Apple. Rumors continue to circulate that Apple may be trying to remove Qualcomm modems from its iPhone product family completely in 2019 or 2020, with Intel being the obvious modem replacement. If that holds true, Intel will have an enormous customer account to justify its development costs. Being associated with a company often considered the most advanced in the mobile space has its advantages too.
Apple has indicated that it sees 5G technology as a 2020 growth opportunity, which would allow time for Intel to finalize the XMM 8060 modem. Competing Android devices are expected to ship in late 2018 and ramp in 2019 using Qualcomm 5G modems.