Intel this week made announcements surrounding its efforts and products in the mobile connectivity device segment. The Intel XMM 8000-series of 5G capable modems will bring the next-generation of wireless connectivity to PCs, smartphones, and infrastructure devices with a target consumer product launch in mid-2019. Intel also updated plans for a new 4G LTE modem that will offer speeds as high as 1.6 Gigabits-per-second, a substantial upgrade from current connectivity options on smartphones (peaking at 1.0 Gigabits-per-second), again with a 2019 target release.
Though modems and connectivity products may seem like a small part of the mobile story, the market is huge and the potential for Intel, or any company, to cash in with best-in-class products is significant. Every smart phone today requires a modem and in the future every tablet and laptop will too.
5G modems will be required for the internet-of-things revolution that is headed our way with literally billions more connected devices coming online over the next 10 years. Intel is not developing modems out of curiosity; there is significant financial upside to becoming a player in this space.
Intel is battling Qualcomm for the 5G future, though the San Diego-based company has a sizeable lead in development. First announced in October of 2016, the Snapdragon X50 modem was demonstrated in a prototype handset last month, enabling trials for real-world use cases and environments.
Interestingly, on the same day as this Intel product and roadmap update, a story comes from Fast Company claiming that Apple will be releasing iPhones in 2019/2020 that will utilize Intel modem technology exclusively. That would be a shift from what Apple implements today, a division between Qualcomm Snapdragon modems and Intel XMM-series modems. In the US, Verizon and Sprint iPhones use Qualcomm while AT&T and T-Mobile use Intel.
This split started with the iPhone 7 release in 2016. What isn’t widely known is that the number of locations and regions that use the Intel option is lower with the iPhone 8 and iPhone X. Australian carriers for example specifically requested Apple use the Qualcomm modem rather than Intel on their networks to help with performance and congestion. India did the same thing.
Independent testing shows that with current hardware and carrier infrastructure, the iPhone’s using Qualcomm modems are faster than those using Intel. PCMag’s Sascha Segan wrote about speed test results when the iPhone 8 first launched.
For Apple, it needs to be careful that it doesn’t let corporate politics influence technological integration. As Qualcomm and Intel battle for faster 4G connectivity capability and race to 5G modems, Apple’s desire to distance itself from Qualcomm due to continuing legal battles could result in the iPhone falling further behind in connectivity speed and reliability. If Apple wants the iPhone line to continue to represent the best of the mobile world, it should tread lightly on these decisions.
Intel could offer Apple the ability to integrate modem technology directly on to the SoC (system-on-chip) with the rest of Apple’s custom silicon design. That is an area that Qualcomm would never concede; it values its intellectual property too highly. If Intel could combine a deal to integrate 5G modems in future Apple chips and physically manufacture the processors at Intel’s fab facilities, it could create a unique opportunity for both parties.
I would be interested to see how willing Intel executives are to bow to Apple’s well-understood and tough demands. Many of Apple’s product and service providers supply the Cupertino giant with sweetheart deals just to utilize the design win in other partner negotiations. Intel is proud enough that it may not be willing to yield.
Though not sexy like machine learning or artificial intelligence trends, the truth is that wireless technology, RF front-ends, and antennae design is incredibly complex. Merging it all with tower technology and carrier partnerships makes it even harder. Qualcomm has decades of experience doing this and has become the mobile technology leader for a reason.
Past success does not guarantee future capability, and Intel has the engineering resources and R&D budget to advance quickly. Intel will depend on those deep pockets, and likely some push from Apple, if it is to make significant headroom in a field where Qualcomm’s experience is unmatched.
Even Microsoft chose to use Qualcomm’s modem technology on its upcoming Surface Pro LTE despite using Intel’s Core processors in the same design. It claimed performance and power efficiency (that equates to better battery life) were the key decision points.