Intel Wants to Be First to Scale with 5G—Not First to Market

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By Malik Saadi | 4Q 2018 | IN-5316

Intel exudes confidence after announcing the impending large-scale shipments of its XMM 8160 5G modem. Partnerships with companies like Apple and Spreadtrum will only help to cement Intel’s lead in the market as it marches boldly into the future.

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Intel’s First Commercial 5G Chip


This week, Intel announced its XMM 8160 5G modem, the second generation of its 5G New Radio (NR) offering, which comes in the form of an integrated 2G/3G/4G/5G modem, 5G sub-6 Gigahertz (GHz) Radio Frequency (RF) transceiver, and a 5G transceiver for mmWave. Large-scale shipments of XMM 8160 are planned for 2H 2019, with commercially-enabled devices expected to hit the market sometime in 2020. This announcement places the company front and center with future 5G devices, including smartphones, always-on computing devices, and gateways.

Intel Targets Multi-Mode Modems, Contrary to Its Competitors


It is worth mentioning that Intel’s competitors have already announced their first-generation 5G modem chips in 2017 and 2018, all of which are separate chips designed to be paired with 2G/3G/4G modems. Except for Intel, all other 5G modem suppliers are not yet considering bringing integrated 2G/3G/4G/5G chips to market until 5G becomes mature. Indeed, bringing the level of integration exhibited in the XMM 8160 modem at such an early stage of 5G deployments shows that Intel is confident it can generate large-scale deployments for its 5G chip from the first commercial launch. This could be an indication that the company is working with one or more Tier One Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), notably Apple, to guarantee such large-scale deployments. Intel will also leverage its partnership with Chinese semiconductor company Spreadtrum, announced in February 2018, to target several Chinese smartphone vendors with this 5G modem, enabling the company to secure even wider scale for its modem.

Of added importance in 5G smartphones is the increasing complexity of the RF Front-End (RFFE) design, leading to component numbers increasing exponentially. Intel’s approach to bridging the gap between modem, transceivers, and antennas is for a co-optimization framework with suppliers to address this inherent complexity without compromising on smartphone time to market, price, performance, and power consumption. Moreover, including Apple in its stable should enable Intel to use this partnership as leverage to effectively manage and overcome the challenges that RF poses to command some highly integrated RFFE components for 5G.

Can Intel Lead the Market?


By creating a highly integrated modem with multi-mode support, the company has taken the lead over its competitors, which will allow Intel’s 5G technology to be used in smaller and more power efficient devices from the start.

Smartphones powered by Intel’s XMM 8160 are expected to be the first to be commercially available, sometime during 1H 2020, followed closely by laptop Personal Computers (PCs). This is probably the biggest indicator that Apple will not be among the first to launch 5G devices in 2019 or even in early 2020 but will wait until 2H 2020 to deploy 5G in a more integrated, power efficient, and compact design.

The indications analyzed above mean that Intel could potentially secure at least 300 million unit shipments for its first commercial 5G chip across its lifetime. Not all chipset suppliers can claim such a highly anticipated performance. 


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