Intel Accelerates 5G Modem Deployment, Could Power First 5G iPhones

Intel Accelerates 5G Modem Deployment, Could Power First 5G iPhones

There have been a number of rumors around Intel’s modem business lately and its long-term relationship with Apple. The company is moving up its own publicly announced 5G roadmap and plans after some of these stories broke over the past few weeks, emphasizing that its upcoming XMM 8160 5G modem will launch more than a half-year early, with availability expected in the back half of 2019.

The new chip will provide a maximum download speed of 6Gbit/s, a rate Intel claims is 3-6x faster than existing LTE modems. Keep in mind, of course, that such rates are fairly theoretical and likely far above what you’ll see in practice, particularly with early generation hardware and limited 5G deployments. Then again, the claimed rate is still substantially above what companies are delivering with 4G, and should make gigabit deployments over wireless broadband more plausible, provided you have a solid line-of-sight to your transmitter and good small cell coverage.

The Intel XMM 8160 5G modem. Credit: Intel Corporation
The Intel XMM 8160 5G modem. Credit: Intel Corporation

The XMM 8160 will support operation in both 5G standalone and non-standalone modes, as well as supporting 4G, 3G, and 2G in a single chipset. Intel claims that its 5G modem will handle all backwards communication in a single device unlike competing modems, which will require two chipsets for the same connectivity. The 8160 is capable of connecting simultaneously over 5G and 4G, which Intel claims is critical to ensuring seamless network support in areas where 5G is unavailable. The company also claims to support new millimeter wave spectrum and 5G deployments in the sub-6GHz band (600MHz – 6GHz).

If all this seems a bit confusing, that’s because it is. There’s a lot of 5G technology coming to market and a variety of standards supported by various companies, including approaches that will leverage existing LTE technology to hit 5G speeds as well as all-new deployments. Intel is apparently positioning itself as a universal solution, but first-generation 4G / LTE modems weren’t the best performers compared with later hardware and often drew more power, as they were built on a 40nm node compared with the later 28nm parts. Then again, the benefits of die shrinks for modems are often much smaller than what you’d see from other types of silicon, so process node may not play a major part here. And while this is Intel’s first true 5G modem, it’s the second product in the XMM 8000 series (the XMM 8060 was a pre-5G device that will not be commercialized).

This also means Intel will likely ship 5G with Apple in 2020. There’s always a lag between modem availability and commercial integration, so if the modems are available in the back half of this year, integration with the 2020 iPhone, as opposed to the 2019 model, is the most likely scenario.

Intel is bidding to take major market share from companies like Qualcomm after that company dominated the LTE market for multiple years. A trial court recently ruled that Qualcomm must license its modem technology to competitors like Intel, and while that’s not likely to have a near-term impact on the 5G market, Qualcomm’s licensing terms are part of how it locked up much of the 4G market for itself over the last generation. Intel and other companies are looking to break that lock and move into the market themselves.

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