Intel gains on Qualcomm at last with 5G modem roadmap

So much is made of Intel’s repeated failure in the smartphone processor and system-on-chip markets that it can be forgotten that it is a top four player in smartphone modems, courtesy of its 2010 acquisition of Infineon’s wireless business. However, in the seven years it has owned the outfit, it has not come close to worrying Qualcomm at the cutting edge of cellular standards – until now.

In 2017, Intel has dared to go head-to-head with Qualcomm in the territory where it excels – pushing out modems for the very latest standards, in this case 5G. Samsung, Huawei’s HiSilicon and MediaTek will attempt the same feat, but so far Qualcomm has dominated the pre-standard 5G landscape, providing the vast majority of chips for prototypes and test devices.

But at Mobile World Congress in February, Intel signalled that it could mount a serious challenge this time. It showed Gigabit LTE modems in the same timeframe as Qualcomm, and its acquisition of Altera has enabled it to penetrate the 5G testing world too. It is now on a third generation of FPGAs for 5G testing – the Stratix 10 FPGA can reach 10Gbps data rates using 900 MHz channels in high bands such as 28 GHz. Indeed, Verizon’s own pre-standard ‘5G’ specifications are supported by Goldridge, Intel’s first 5G modem.

This has just started sampling and Intel has also released some details of its first fully standardized commercial 5G NR modem, the XMM 8060, which will be released in volume in the middle of 2019. Most significantly, it has promised to offer a top-to-bottom XMM 8000 family of 5G modems for various applications, including smartphones, PCs, buildings and vehicles.

In its update, Intel said that its 5G Mobile Trial Platform is being used in 5G testing around the world (which is really impinging on Qualcomm’s heartland in prototypes and trials). It has also extended the range of its 5G Modem for client devices, which supports Verizon’s pre-standard 5G specifications, and can now make voice and data calls in the 28 GHz band.

The Intel XMM 8000 family of multimode modems will operate in both sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave spectrum bands, and support existing LTE radios alongside 5G NR. The first member, the 8060, will support both 5G NR standards – the first one, Non-Standalone, and the slightly later Standalone (which does not need an LTE core to anchor it). The 8060 will also support 2G, 3G, CDMA and 4G modes.

As well as mmWave bands, the Intel 5G RFIC supports the 3.3-4.2 GHz spectrum, allowing for trials in China and Europe with flexible sub-channelization. It supports 2×2 and 4×4 MIMO configurations, including dual-polarization sub-channelization. It is an update of an FPGA-based 5G modem which Intel put into field trials in 2015. This latest version is the first to be made in the 14nm process, moving on from the 28nm used for its current XMM 7360 baseband for LTE.

Of course, LTE will remain the workhorse for operators for years to come, so Intel and Qualcomm are almost as focused on their 4G race as on next generation networks. Intel also unveiled its latest LTE modem, a Cat-19 model which can support download speeds up to 1.6Gbps, which will also be available in 2019. And in 2018, it expects the first commercial products to ship based on its XMM 7650, which supports Gigabit LTE download and CDMA (and was shown at MWC).

“We strongly believe our baseband capability will be industry-leading,” said Chenwei Yan, general manager of Intel’s connected products group. And as the companies look towards 5G, Intel does seem to have achieved a long-held ambition – to be considered neck-and-neck with Qualcomm in the roadmap for a new standard (if not actually ahead of the modem giant).

Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told EETimes: “Qualcomm will probably still be first with a modem for tests and first devices, but the devil is in the details. In the past, Intel hasn’t been able to match the frequency band combinations Qualcomm supported … details on support for licensed and unlicensed bands and the extent of carrier aggregation is part of the fine print that is hard to get out of everyone.”

But free of the burden of developing an integrated processor/modem SoC, Intel will now try to match Qualcomm’s fabled ability to be at the cutting edge of the latest standards, or in 5G’s case, pre-standards. “We have high confidence we can support what will be defined as the 3GPP standards,” Rob Topol, general manager of Intel’s client 5G group, told EETimes earlier this year. “We brought in the [proposed 5G] low latency frame structure, advanced channel coding, beamforming, 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.”

These thoughts were echoed by Aicha Evans, head of the communications and devices group. Evans said that waiting for final standards before implementing key features like low latency frame structure, advanced channel coding, Massive MIMO and beamforming would delay the whole industry. Instead, it was essential to work with operators and vendors on pre-standard designs so that “we don’t let the industry fragment and have many different specifications in many different countries and many different industries”.

Qualcomm has already thrown its hat in the ring with its X50 5G modem, which uses eight 100 MHz channels, a 2×2 MIMO antenna array, adaptive beamforming and 64 QAM, to achieve a 90dB link budget2. It has initially been designed for the 28 GHz band, in which US operators such as long-time Qualcomm buddy Verizon are conducting pre-5G trials, and works with a separate 28 GHz transceiver and power management chips.