Hoping to accelerate its resurgence in mobile, Intel has announced plans at CES for a 5G modem for smartphones that will sample in the second half of this year. The x86 giant aims to attract design wins in the top 2018 smartphones for the first modem made in its 14nm process.

The plan is an aggressive effort to be early with a chip that supports 3GPP 5G standards. Engineers attending those meetings say the first phase of the 5G standard won’t be formally approved until at least May 2018.

Intel is not alone in the rush to 5G. Its arch rival, Qualcomm, announced late last year its X50 5G modem will sample in 2017. It uses eight 100MHz channels, a 2x2 MIMO antenna array, adaptive beamforming techniques and 64 QAM to achieve a 90dB link budget and works with separate 28GHz transceiver and power management chips.

The chip vendors aim to enable carriers who are racing to be first with pre-standard services they will market as 5G.

“The operators are in a big hurry to announce they have 5G ahead of everyone else,” said Chris Taylor, director of wireless chip research at market watcher Strategy Analytics.

“I think fixed wireless access over millimetre wave frequencies will come first, claiming to be 5G ahead of the standard;, we saw this scenario with 4G,” Taylor said, noting regulators have not yet harmonised millimetre wave bands for 5G, though early trials generally are using 28GHz.

Intel bought its way into the smartphone modem business when it acquired Infineon’s wireless group that had lost a design win in the iPhone. After a long absence, Intel has returned to the top five in baseband revenue share rankings as a result of its design win in the Apple iPhone 7 last year, according to a recent report from Strategy Analytics.

Qualcomm currently ships about half of all LTE modem chips. Samsung and Mediatek follow with a total of about 35% unit share and Intel trails at 4%, Strategy Analytics estimates.

“I personally think Qualcomm, Samsung and Intel will have an early lead in 5G chips for user equipment, Mediatek hasn’t concentrated on 5G like the others,” said Taylor.

Modems scale up to 28nm

Intel announced an FPGA-based 5G modem for field trials a year ago and updated the design in August. It will show a modem chip at CES but a representative declined to give the status of the silicon.

The so-called Gold Ridge baseband chip will support either 28GHz or sub-6GHz transceivers, which Intel is already sampling.

“We have high confidence we can support what will be defined as the 3GPP standards,” said Rob Topol, general manager of Intel’s client 5G group. “We brought in the [proposed 5G] low latency frame structure, advanced channel coding, beam forming, massive MIMO and other elements, and we will fall back to 4G.”

“If channel coding changes slightly, we are building the ability into the design to accept some of those changes … to some extent [the 5G modem is] more programmable,” he added.

The aggressive push to the market “brings complexity for the design team, but this is healthy; we want to see 5G ramp quickly and we want to power it,” he said.

The 5G modem also marks an aggressive leap to 14nm process technology for Intel. Its current XMM 7360 baseband for LTE is made in a 28nm process.

In early testing, the chip hits peak data rates above 5Gbits/s and targets support for the standard’s sub-millisecond latency goal for some applications.

The baseband uses “very traditional blocks,” said Topol. “The biggest architectural difference” from current LTE chips involves “more dynamic power capabilities...with different power management blocks and isolation...for blocking off power” to hit the proposed higher data rates of 5G, he added.

The additional work on power management enables the chip to hit the 5Gbit/s 5G targets while maintaining power consumption levels similar to today’s 4G chips.

First published by EE Times.