MWC: Intel and Qualcomm duke it out in 5G trials and 4G realities

So Mobile World Congress is here, and Barcelona will be full once again with up to 100,000 people from the mobile and wireless industry worldwide. Many of the familiar MWC players will make their usual splash – recent issues of Wireless Watch have looked at what Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei will be demonstrating and discussing. But each year there is a shift in the landscape, which draws some new high profile companies into the Barcelona sunlight.

Virtualization, distributed cloud, fog computing, vertical market networks, the Industrial Internet of Things and flexible spectrum will be among the key themes of the show, and while these offer ways for mobile operators to diversify their revenues and transform their cost bases, they are by no means the preserve of the traditional cellular vendors and service providers. Cloud providers, data center suppliers, enterprise and vertical MVNOs or applications specialists, over-the-top companies and rising numbers of open source initiatives will all be sharing the stage with the MNOs.

Nowhere is the clash of old and new seen more clearly than in the MWC activities of Qualcomm and Intel – the former a stalwart of the show and of the entire cellular industry; the latter now, for the first time, a serious contender for power in the mobile market. Intel has been a major presence for years, but this may be the year when its credibility is most firmly established. After successive failed attempts to seize the mobile initiative, from the WiMAX adventure to a series of smartphone processors, Intel is finally in demand among cellular operators and partners, as they struggle to come to grips with virtualization and a software-defined world that will turn the network into just another cloud platform.

Intel is seeking to drive standards and technologies from the data center to the network edge, hoping to see its processors underpinning the whole cloudified infrastructure which will make 5G and the Internet of Things commercially viable. After so many years of knocking forlornly at the gate, it has been invited into the cellular fortress, in particular by its closest partner in the 3GPP world, Nokia, and also by Ericsson.

Whether it will turn out to be a Trojan horse for the old-school vendors remains to be seen, but for now Intel and Nokia have a deepening alliance to combine their respective heritages and ecosystems, in data centers and radio networks, in order to drive towards 5G.

Having cooperated on several Nokia offerings such as Liquid Apps, which distributes intelligence and applications to the network edge, and the AirFrame MNO cloud platform, the pair have now set up joint testing facilities in the US and Finland, focusing on 5G “from device to cloud”.

The companies said their labs will develop 5G solutions and refine deployment and operational models, harnessing Nokia’s AirFrame and its AirScale RAN family, plus client and infrastructure platforms running on Intel processors, together with pre-standard 5G connectivity courtesy of Intel’s former Infineon Wireless unit.

The jointly owned 5G acceleration labs will be located in Murray Hill, New Jersey, and in Espoo, Finland, and the companies pledge that all work will be aligned with 3GPP standards as those evolve. They will build on existing LTE technologies up to Release 14, as that is defined, and will link them to the Intel 5G Mobile Trial Platform and to Nokia’s work on aspects of 5G such as Massive MIMO.

They also aim to attract a wide range of service providers to the facilities to help test and integrate the solutions and identify operational models.

Sandra Rivera, general manager of Intel’s Network Platforms Group, said: “The networks of tomorrow must be powerful, agile, flexible and built upon open standards and virtualized infrastructure technology for delivery of intelligent edge services in the 5G era. The opening of these two labs expands our collaboration with Nokia and other ecosystem partners, allowing us to take another critical step to accelerate commercial 5G deployments.”

Intel’s Nokia alliance is close but not monogamous – the chip giant has also set up a new US initiative with Ericsson to help drive 5G adoption, working with several industry heavyweights including GE and Honeywell. The 5G Innovators Initiative (5GI2) also numbers the University of California – Berkeley in its founder members’ list.

The latest in the seemingly endless stream of 5G cooperations and partnerships is focused specifically on the links between next generation networks and the Industrial IoT (IIoT). It will develop pilots for various solutions – it gave the example of drone surveillance of hazardous environments using augmented/virtual reality. These pilots will develop step-by-step blueprints of the network, cloud and 5G connectivity requirements, including speed, security and analytics.

Over time, the group expects to extend its reach beyond the IIoT and into other 5G use cases such as autonomous driving, smart cities, healthcare and media.

GE and Nokia are also working with Qualcomm, on trials of what they say is the first private LTE network customized for the IIoT. Nokia has been very interested in private networks recently, as it seeks to extend its target markets from telcos to vertical markets, and earlier this month showed its Cloud Packet Core supporting optimized networks for multiple industry sectors. Together with GE Digital and Qualcomm, it says it will conduct further live trials during 2017 based on the initial demonstration, “designed to advance the digitization of industrial processes”.

These are just the latest in a series of 5G labs and alliances which will be highlighted at the show – important for real world intelligence, as the first wave of 5G standards come close, but also for industry kudos and profile.

Asha Keddy, general manager of Next Generation and Standards at Intel, told FierceWirelessTech: “We’re really focusing on trials.” Some of its partners include AT&T, the major carrier in Intel’s LTE IOT Quick Deployment (LIQD) program for getting IoT devices certified and ready for market quickly; and Telefonica and Madrid-based lab 5Tonic, which are using the Intel FlexRAN software reference platform in their 5G lab.

Intel will be glad to boast of its new partnerships with Europe’s two mobile infrastructure giants, given that Qualcomm has a virtual monopoly on pre-5G trials with its aggressive development of prototype basebands for pre-standard connections and now for 5G NR (New Radio).

This will be the 3GPP’s first 5G specifications, and come in two stages within Release 15 (LTE-anchored and standalone). The initial specs will not be finalized until early 2018 (or as late as May if AT&T fails to get its way – see separate item). But 5G triallists like Qualcomm claim that the standards are becoming sufficiently clear now to enable them to devise 5G NR prototypes which can be reworked relatively easily to support final specs. (Verizon is saying the same about its proprietary pre-5G fixed wireless technology.) Release 16 will follow around mid-2019 and will address IoT-related issues such as very low latency.

But Intel is muscling in on the valuable 5G testing game too. It is now on a third generation of FPGAs for 5G testing, thanks to its acquisition of Altera, and will show off that technology in over-the-air tests with Ericsson in Barcelona. The company is working on sub-6 GHz to 39 GHz spectrum for its initial tests, which allows it to support Verizon’s activities in 28 GHz. The Stratix 10 FPGA can reach 10Gbps data rates using 900 MHz channels in these high bands. Verizon’s specs will be supported by Goldridge, the 5G modem which Intel says will start sampling in the second half of this year and will be upgradeable to full 5G NR when that is agreed.

At MWC, the company will demonstrate a 5G-like connection between a car and an Ericsson base station, aiming for speeds up to 7Gbps using 800 MHz channels. “We will demonstrate interoperability between a chip set vendor and an infrastructure vendor live over the air – this is a major step for establishing 5G as an air interface,” Intel said.

Qualcomm showed a similar pre-5G connectivity demonstration at MWC Shanghai last summer and promises further demoes in Barcelona as it gears up to sample its X50 5G modem, which uses eight 100 MHz channels, a 2×2 MIMO array with adaptive beamforming, and 64QAM, to achieve a 90dB link budget. It works with a separate 28 GHz transceiver and power management chips.

The firm also said it had achieved its first successful 5G connection based on the 3GPP’s work-to-date on 5G NR. It will demonstrate its sub-6 GHz prototype at MWC, as will China Mobile.

Ben Timmons, senior director of business development, said in an interview that Qualcomm now had “very substantial numbers of relationships with operators and infrastructure vendors all around the world where we are committed to start early trials using prototype devices – prototype devices from us, prototype infrastructure from the infrastructure vendors, working together with the operator. These are working against the detail of the standard as its emerging. Every time the standard changes, we are going to develop our prototypes, the infrastructure vendors will do the same, and we are working very, very closely to give the operators a really clear and easy route from what we understand now with 5G to what they will eventually launch.”

Both Qualcomm and Intel will also be showing off products for the LTE market, since that will remain the chief source of mobile deployments and revenues for years to come.
Both companies will have gigabit-class LTE modems on display. Intel’s is the Cat-16 XMM 7560, a 14nm chip, and Intel’s first modem to be made in its own fabs rather than by foundry TSMC. It is also Intel’s first smartphone modem to support six modes including all global positioning systems, and it can handle carrier aggregation on up to five bands on a single transceiver and support more than 35 frequency bands from 700 MHz to 6 GHz.

Qualcomm’s latest LTE modem is the X20, which can reach speeds of 1.2Gbps, which should appear in devices next year. A Cat-18 product, the modem supports carrier aggregation and data transfers over multiple streams. It works with 40 frequency bands and supports VoLTE and LTE-Broadcast.

Qualcomm will also show off the first products from its joint venture with TDK, RF360 Holdings, which was finalized recently – these will include four multimode, multiband power amps which support a wide range of spectrum bands. One model, the QPA5461, supports user equipment with transmit power of up to 31 dBm, potentially doubling the range of an LTE network.

With Qualcomm estimating that a high end smartphone in 2020 could require 100 filters enabling it to support 40 bands (up from 50 filters and 15 bands in 2015), there is clearly growth in the RF front end chip market where “Qualcomm essentially cuts into opportunities from big RF chip companies like Skyworks Solutions and Qorvo as well as RF switch specialists Peregrine and Cavindish Kinetics and even antenna specialists Skycross and Ethertronics,” as chip analyst Will Strauss of Forward Concepts told EETimes.