Will Intel be a major player in the 5G chip market?
5G will be different from LTE in several ways, and these differences could give Intel an advantage
Intel isn’t a top provider of LTE chips, but the company is determined to play a major role in 5G and the internet of things. Its chipsets are used in servers, network equipment and mobile devices, giving it a unique end-to-end play that it hopes network operators will value as they explore platforms that can connect billions of devices to robust data analysis.
“The billions of connected devices and sensors coming, many of them don’t need to talk directly to a cell tower or a core network,” said Rob Topol, general manager of Intel’s 5G business and technology unit. “They might just need a machine-to-machine communication to where they can work with each other.” Intel has been working for two years on chipsets that it says will help network operators connect more devices, and help those devices communicate with lightning speeds. AT&T has been using Intel’s mobile trial platform for 5G tests in Austin, and now Intel says that platform will be the first to support the non-standalone 5G New Radio standard that the Third Generation Partnership Project will finalize late this year. Topol said some operators may move quickly to deploy new 5G hardware.
“You will find companies that may want to commercialize non-standalone because they already have a significant investment in LTE or that infrastructure,” Topol said. “So to just add the 5G new radio functions … might be an easy thing to complement a network they’ve already invested in. You could see companies that see the standard released and they start to place those orders.” These are the customers Intel plans to be ready for.
“Companies like Intel start to build chipsets and solutions, and so it sort of starts the green light signal for probably about 12-18 months later seeing a service provided to consumers,” Topol said.
Intel was one of several companies that encouraged the 3GPP to release an interim, non-standalone 5G NR standard ahead of next year’s final 5G standard. It is called non-standalone because the 5G radios and base stations handle user data, but rely on LTE for the signaling that controls that data as it moves through the network. A standard for full standalone 5G is expected in September 2018.
Intel will support non-standalone 5G NR with two types of chips: its Core i7 processors, and its field programmable processors. The field programmable chips are used to test various configurations and the Core i7 processors are for testing the performance and capability of one specific configuration in a variety of circumstances or conditions.
“Moving on to a new standard, you have trial specifications you work on,” explained Topol “Whether it’s the way you code it onto the radio waves, or the modulation, or the carrier spacing – all these ways that you maximize the amount of bits that can go onto the radio waves. So there’s a focus on efficiency, there’s a focus on using new spectrum, but there’s also a focus on … the new use cases.”
New use cases that leverage low latencies and high numbers of connections are a focus of testing with Intel’s platform, giving the company a good inroad to future commercial deployments. Of course, archrival Qualcomm is also working on 5G test solutions, and hopes to dominate the 5G ecosystem just as it has dominated LTE.
Qualcomm is heading into the 5G world with one major disadvantage: its ongoing legal battle with Apple. Intel supplied Apple with LTE modems for some versions of the iPhone 7, and is expected to be an even more significant supplier for the iPhone 8.