Intel’s new multimode 5G modem—supporting 6 Gbps speeds—to be in phones by 2020

Intel announced its new XMM 8160 5G modem. (Intel)

Intel announced a new 5G chip for smartphones and other gadgets that the company will release next year. The company said it expects the chip, which supports speeds up to 6 Gbps, to ship in commercial devices starting in 2020.

That timeframe is notable considering Fast Company reported that Apple will launch a 5G iPhone with Intel’s 5G chip in 2020. The Fast Company report even cited the model number of Intel’s chip—8161—which is just one digit off from the name of Intel’s chip announced today, the XMM 8160 5G modem (chip vendors often make specific chip iterations for specific customers, which could be the reason for the different numbers).

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Intel’s Cormac Conroy, VP and GM of the company’s communication and devices group, declined to discuss Apple and Intel’s 5G customer prospects. But he said Intel’s new 8160 5G modem is noteworthy because it combines 5G and LTE onto the same baseband. That “multimode” approach sets Intel apart from Qualcomm, which has announced its own Snapdragon X50 5G modem that essentially separates 5G and LTE capabilities into two separate elements on the company’s chip.

The drawback, Conroy acknowledged, is that Intel’s chip will be released next year and then be sold in commercial products by 2020, whereas Qualcomm has promised that its own X50 5G modem will be released in commercial products next year.

“Whilst it will miss the first wave of 5G products in 2019, it will launch as 5G ramps in 2020,” noted Geoff Blaber, an analyst at CCS Insight.

“Intel faces a formidable challenge from Qualcomm which has broad manufacturer and carrier support for its 5G NR X50 modem,” Blaber said. “However, Intel’s 5G strategy is fundamentally different with the modem only being one part that encompasses cloud, core network, access network and devices. Beyond the end point, Intel is bringing a cloud and data center mindset to its infrastructure partners.”

Continued Blaber: “The Intel versus Qualcomm characterization is overplayed. Qualcomm is the leader in mobile chipsets but Intel doesn’t have to win in modems to be successful in 5G. 5G is big and complex enough that there is opportunity for both players.”

Conroy said Intel’s new 8160 5G modem supports 5G in 26 GHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz as well as a wide range of bands between 600 MHz and 6 GHz. He added that the modem can also support 2G, 3G and 4G, alongside both the standalone and non-standalone versions of 5G.

Intel’s 8160 modem is essentially the commercial version of the company’s previously announced 8060 modem that Conroy said Intel released mainly for 5G testing.

Interestingly, Conroy said Intel is also packaging its 5G modem into a smartphone reference design, sporting an applications processor from supplied by Unisoc Communications (formerly Spreadtrum). Conroy said the offering would be available in the first half of 2020 and is designed to push Intel’s 5G modem into the midtier portion of the smartphone market.

Further, Conroy explained that phones are one of many categories of devices that Intel hopes to sell its new 5G modem into. He said PC and broadband access gateway makers are also expected to purchase the chip for their products.

The announcement of Intel’s modem comes amid a major push by the silicon giant into the 5G arena. The company outlined its “big bet” on 5G at the recent MWC Americas trade show.

The launch of Intel’s new modem coincides with initial moves toward 5G service deployments by the nation’s wireless network operators. Verizon has already launched a 5G-branded fixed wireless service, and plans to launch mobile 5G services next year.

AT&T executives have said the company is weeks away from launching mobile 5G services in a dozen cities. T-Mobile executives have promised nationwide 5G services by 2020, and Sprint is gearing up to launch 5G in nine markets next year.

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