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Intel and Huawei bite at Qualcomm’s heels in 5G smartphone chips

Mobile World Congress was awash with interesting chips for devices, infrastructure, cars and IoT modules, and the competition was heating up between some of the big names, all looking to dominate the 5G smartphone.

Qualcomm may have a different competitive landscape this time around, whatever the outcome of Broadcom’s bid to acquire it – with Intel, Samsung and Huawei all chasing its crown as the inevitable market leader for modems in any new cellular technology. Meanwhile, rivals it may have worried about at the dawn of 4G are less threatening, especially MediaTek, which is refocusing its business after a sharp decline in smartphone chip sales. It has recently announced several moves to concentrate on IoT chips, and at MWC said it was also moving into the customized ASIC business.

Qualcomm itself made a host of MWC announcements, including the demo of a modem-to-antenna solution which highlighted how the company has been extending its reach into every corner of the handset including the RF front end (RFFE). The solution pre-integrates the RFFE, X20 Gigabit LTE modem and Snapdragon 845 processor and surrounding platform, and also supports 4K HDR video capture. The offering, which would appeal to vendors trying to reduce cost, time to market and power consumption, was shown off in a Sony Xperia XZ2 midrange smartphone.

The company also gave center stage to its first commercial 5G NR chips, the Snapdragon X50 family for sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave bands. It had previously announced almost a score of OEMs which are working with this technology (Asus, Fujitsu Limited, Fujitsu Connected Technologies Limited, HMD Global – the home of Nokia phones, HTC, Inseego/Novatel Wireless, LG, NetComm Wireless, NETGEAR, OPPO, Sharp Corporation, Sierra Wireless, Sony Mobile, Telit, vivo, Wingtech, WNC, Xiaomi and ZTE).

But it will not have the field to itself. Huawei unveiled its first commercial 5G modem, the Balong 5G01, which promises peak download speeds of 2.3Gbps and air interface latency of 0.33ms. It is available for sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands and will, the Chinese company claims, be in fully available devices before any other supplier’s chips.

Richard Yu, CEO of Huawei’s consumer business group, said: “This is the world’s first commercialized 3GPP 5G chipset… We are currently working with the top 30 carriers across the world to conduct 5G commercial trials and this year we will aim for a full commercial launch.”

Meanwhile, Intel may have exited the smartphone processor business, but it still has a successful modem activity thanks to its Infineon Wireless acquisition, and aims to go head-to-head with Qualcomm, Huawei and Samsung in the race for early 5G design wins.

Significantly, it announced a 5G system-on-chip design collaboration with China’s Spreadtrum, in which it has an investment and an existing cooperation over mobile device chips. When that was announced in 2014, it initially focused on Intel’s 4G SoC, and the alliance survived the failure of that product – but it now seems that Intel will try again to offer an integrated processor/modem, and particularly to target the Chinese market via Spreadtrum.

Intel will work with Spreadtrum and another wireless subsidiary of Tsinghua Unigroup, RDA, to develop a 5G smartphone platform for the Chinese market that will be available in time for the first network launches next year. The SoC will combine Intel XMM 8000 modems with Spreadtrum’s application processors.

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