SAN JOSE, Calif. — Intel announced plans for an integrated 5G modem, targeting 2020 when the market is expected to be in full gear. The news could accelerate work on an integrated chipset from Qualcomm, which is expected to pick up the vast majority of the few sockets for 5G-only modems through 2019.

Intel said its XMM 8160, a 5G modem chipset also supporting LTE and 2/3G, will ship in the second half of 2019, six months earlier than first planned. It will support data rates up to 6 Gbits/second and come in versions for millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz bands, supporting standalone and non-standalone 5G modes.

An earlier 5G-only modem, the XMM 8060, “is becoming a development platform” rather than a commercial product, said an Intel spokeswoman. Thus Intel “will miss the 2019 5G launches, but it is targeting large-scale rollouts from customers such as Apple and [partner] Spreadtrum,” said Malik Saadi, vice president of strategic technologies for market watcher ABI Research.

The commitment to an integrated part early in the 5G ramp suggests Intel got backing from Apple, one or more large China handset makers, or both. “Intel could potentially secure at least 300 million-unit shipments for this first commercial 5G chip across its lifetime — not all chipset suppliers could claim such a performance,” Saadi said. 

ABI expects as many as 728.7 million 5G devices will ship by the end of 2023. The market will start off slowly next year with sales of about 18.5 million devices, it estimates.

Qualcomm will command most the first year of sales with the possibility of some sockets going to parts from Samsung and Huawei. By 2020, Samsung and Huawei should have their own 5G modems in play, possibly joined by others such as Mediatek, whose cellular modems has been lagging in time-to-market, he said.

Intel 5G modem
Intel sketched out its plans for integrated 5G modems. (Source: Intel)

Qualcomm is expected to react swiftly to Intel’s news, accelerating its plans for a modem supporting both 5G and earlier standards. But “integration normally takes time to get the right efficiency, performance and scale,” Saadi said, noting “Intel’s partnership with Apple is enabling Intel to be confident to generate scale.”  

LG has announced it will ship a 5G handset early next year. Apple is expected to trail with a handset in 2020.

Qualcomm took a lead role in defining the 5G standard and bringing a commercial 5G-only product to market. It announced 19 customers for its Snapdragon X50 in February. But “challengers are closing the gap, mainly Intel (thanks to exclusivity with Apple) as well as Samsung and Huawei as they are increasingly using in-house chips,” Saadi said.

Qualcomm aims to leverage its separate RF front end modules to command business, especially from smaller handset makers. So far, Intel has not announced RFFE chips of its own, but is expected to work with third parties such as Broadcom, Qorvo and Skyworks on 5G RF reference designs.

“Large OEMs still want to control the RFFE design since it is strongly correlated with the industrial design. Thanks to their scale, they can ask RF suppliers to customize these components for them,” Saadi said.

“Smaller OEMs don’t have this privilege, so they have to do with off-the-shelf components. This is why they depend so much on innovation brought by RF integrators,” he added.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times