Dell’Oro Group estimates the RAN market is currently generating between $40 billion and $45 billion in annual revenues. The market research firm forecasts that Open RAN will account for 15% of sales in 2026. Research & Markets is more optimistic. They say the Open RAN Market will hit $32 billion in revenues by 2030 with a growth rate of 42% for the forecast period between 2022 and 2030.
As the undisputed leader of microprocessors for compute servers, it’s no surprise that most of the new Open RAN and virtual RAN (vRAN) deployments use Intel Xeon processors and FlexRAN™ software stack inside the baseband processing modules. FlexRAN™ is a vRAN reference architecture for virtualized cloud-enabled radio access networks.
The hardware for FlexRAN™ includes: Intel® Xeon® CPUs 3rd generation Intel® Xeon® Scalable processor (formerly code named Ice Lake scalable processor), Intel® Forward Error Correction Device (Intel® FEC Device), Mount Bryce (FEC accelerator), Network Interface Cards – Intel® Ethernet Controller E810 (code name Columbiaville). Intel says there are now over 100 FlexRAN™ licensees worldwide as per these charts:
A short video on the FlexRAN™ reference architecture is here.
FlexRAN™ got a big boost this week from AT&T. In a February 24, 2022 blog post titled “Cloudifying 5G with an Elastic RAN,” Gordon Mansfield, AT&T VP Mobility Access & Architecture said that “AT&T and Intel had co-developed an industry-leading advanced RAN pooling technology freeing 5G radios from the limitations of dedicated base stations, while enabling more efficient, resilient, and green 5G networks. DU-pooling will eventually be usable by the entire 5G operator community to drive the telecom industry’s goals of green and efficient wireless networks forward.”
DU pooling technology was made possible by combining AT&T’s deep knowledge of Open RAN technologies as one of the co-founders of the O-RAN Alliance with Intel’s expertise in general purpose processors and software-based RAN through its FlexRAN™ software stack running on Intel 3rd generation Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors. The open standards for communications between radios and DUs that were published by O-RAN enabled its development, and the result is a technology demonstrator implemented on FlexRAN™ software.
Intel is now facing new Open RAN competition from several semiconductor companies.
Marvell has just unveiled a new accelerator card that will slot into a Dell compute server (which uses x86 processors). Based on a system called “inline” acceleration, it is designed to do baseband PHY layer processing and do it more efficiently than x86 processors. A Marvell representative claims it will boost open RAN performance and support a move “away from Intel.” Heavy Reading’s Simon Stanley (see below) was impressed. “This is a significant investment by Dell in open RAN and vRAN and a great boost for Marvell and the inline approach,” he said.
Qualcomm, which licenses RISC processors designed by UK-based ARM, has teamed up with Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) on the X100 5G RAN accelerator card. Like Marvel’s offering, it also uses inline acceleration and works – by “offloading server CPUs [central processing units] from compute-intensive 5G baseband processing.”
There is also EdgeQ which is sampling a “Base Station on a Chip” which is targeted at Open RAN and private 5G markets. Three years in the making, EdgeQ has been collaborating with market-leading wireless infrastructure customers to architect a highly optimized 5G baseband, networking, compute and AI inference system-on-a-chip. By coupling a highly integrated silicon with a production-ready 5G PHY software, EdgeQ uniquely enables a frictionless operating model where customers can deploy all key functionalities and critical algorithms of the radio access network such as beamforming, channel estimation, massive MIMO and interference cancellation out of the box.
For customers looking to engineer value-adds into their 5G RAN designs, the EdgeQ PHY layer is completely programmable and extensible. Customers can leverage an extendable nFAPI interface to add their custom extensions for 5G services to target the broad variety of 5G applications spanning Industry 4.0 to campus networks and fixed wireless to telco-grade macro cells. As an industry first, the EdgeQ 5G platform holistically addresses the pain point of deploying 5G PHY and MAC software layers, but with an open framework that enables a rich ecosystem of L2/L3 software partners.
The anticipated product launches will be welcomed by network operators backing Open RAN. Several of them have held off making investments in the technology, partly out of concern about energy efficiency and performance in busy urban areas. Scott Petty, Vodafone’s chief digital officer, has complained that Open RAN vendors will not look competitive equipped with only x86 processors. “Now they need to deliver, but it will require some dedicated silicon. It won’t be Intel chips,” he told Light Reading in late 2021.
Inline vs Lookaside Acceleration:
While Marvell and Qualcomm are promoting the “inline” acceleration concept, Intel is using an alternative form of acceleration called “lookaside,” which continues to rely heavily on the x86 processor, offloading some but not all PHY layer functions. This week, Intel announced its own product refresh based on Sapphire Rapids, the codename for its next-generation server processors.
Simon Stanley, an analyst at large for Heavy Reading (owned by Informa), said there are two key innovations. The first involves making signal-processing tweaks to the Sapphire Rapids core to speed up the performance of FlexRAN™, Intel’s baseband software stack. Speaking on a video call with reporters, Dan Rodriguez, the general manager of Intel’s network platforms group, claimed a two-fold capacity gain from the changes. “In the virtual RAN and open RAN world, the control, packet and signal processing are all done on Xeon and that is what FlexRAN enables,” he said.
The other innovation is the promise of integrated acceleration in future Sapphire Rapids processors. Sachin Katti, who works as chief technology officer for Intel’s network and edge group, said this would combine the benefits of inline acceleration with the flexibility of x86. That is preferable, he insisted, to any solution “that shoves an entire PHY layer into an inflexible hardware accelerator,” a clear knock at inline rivals such as Marvell and Qualcomm. Despite Katti’s reference to inline acceleration, Stanley does not think it is Intel’s focus. “None of this rules out an inline acceleration solution, but it does not seem to be part of the core approach,” he told Light Reading. “The key strategy is to add maximum value to Xeon Scalable processors and enable external acceleration where needed to achieve performance goals.”
Both inline and lookaside involve trade-offs. Inline’s backers have promised PHY layer software alternatives, but Intel has a major head start with FlexRAN™, which it began developing in 2010. That means lookaside may be a lot more straightforward. “The processor is in control of everything that goes on,” said Stanley during a previous conversation with Light Reading. “It is essentially the same software and makes life very easy.”
Larger network operators seemed more enthusiastic about inline during a Heavy Reading survey last year. By cutting out the processor, it would reduce latency, a measure of the delay that occurs when signals are sent over the network. That could also weaken Intel, reducing power needs and allowing companies to use less costly CPUs. “If you use inline, you probably need a less powerful processor and less expensive server platform, which is not necessarily something Intel wants to promote,” Stanley said last year.
The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) today announced results from a new field trial using technology from CableLabs®, Intel, and Asus. The purpose was to highlight the benefits of using Low Power Indoor Wi-Fi 6E for a wide variety of demanding residential applications, including video collaboration for telecommuting, multiplayer gaming, augmented and virtual reality, streaming video and more.
Since the 6 GHz band is higher frequency range than 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz typically used for Wi-Fi, signals have more of a challenge with obstruction the trial took place in a 3,600-square-foot, two-story home with a basement and the drywall, wood and other building materials typically found in a suburban residence. The Wi-Fi 6E enabled laptops with Intel® Wi-Fi 6E AX210 wireless cards were placed in various locations throughout the home and tests were conducted using a Wi-Fi 6E enabled access point from Asus.
The trial featured a range of tests on the downlink and uplink comparing throughput achieved on the 5 GHz and 6 GHz bands for wide channels (80 MHz and 160 MHz). CableLabs and Intel also analyzed the Wi-Fi 6E performance compared to Wi-Fi 6 on the 5 GHz band in the presence of overlapping neighbouring access points.
The trial’s key results include 1.7 TCP Gbps downlink and 1.2 TCP Gbps uplink speeds when using 160 MHz channels on Wi-Fi 6E in locations close to the access point. The larger channel bandwidth and the associated increase in total EIRP transmit power based on the channel bandwidth helped maximize both coverage and speed throughout the home.
These results clearly demonstrate the real-world benefits of using Wi-Fi 6E enabled devices over 6 GHz rather than 5 GHz. It is important to note that although Wi-Fi 6 devices perform better than Wi-Fi 5 devices over 5 GHz, next-level user experiences are possible with Wi-Fi 6E and the additional bandwidth available in the 6 GHz spectrum.
Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance, said: “This field trial by CableLabs and Intel shows how Wi-Fi 6E and 6 GHz spectrum maximize coverage, capacity, throughput and the user experience in one of the most demanding real-world environments: people’s homes. Between HD and 4K streaming video, multiplayer gaming, dozens of smart home devices and videoconferencing for remote work, today’s home Wi-Fi networks are the foundation for how people live, work and play. This trial highlights that Wi-Fi 6E is more than capable of shouldering that load, especially when paired with 6 GHz spectrum.”
Lili Hervieu, Lead Architect of Wireless Access Technology at CableLabs, said: “CableLabs has been a proponent of making the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed use, and we were honored to conduct the Wi-Fi 6E trial in one of our employee’s homes for a truly real-world experience. The results confirmed the benefit of Wi-Fi 6E for increased capacity and data rate that will support the growing demand we are seeing for a large variety of applications and for new emerging technologies.”
Eric A. McLaughlin, VP Client Computing Group, GM Wireless Solutions Group, Intel Corporation, said: “Intel’s mission is to enable great PC experiences with industry leading platform capabilities like Wi-fi 6E. The wireless trial, in collaboration with CableLabs and the Wireless Broadband Alliance, helps demonstrate the versatility of Wi-fi 6E on Intel platforms. The speed, latency, and reliability improvements enabled by the new 6 GHz spectrum, with larger channels and freedom from legacy Wi-Fi interference, will help dramatically enhance user communication, entertainment, and productivity.”
About the Wireless Broadband Alliance:
Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) is the global organization that connects people with the latest Wi-Fi initiatives. Founded in 2003, the vision of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) is to drive seamless, interoperable service experiences via Wi-Fi within the global wireless ecosystem. WBA’s mission is to enable collaboration between service providers, technology companies, cities, regulators and organizations to achieve that vision. WBA’s membership is comprised of major operators, identity providers and leading technology companies across the Wi-Fi ecosystem with the shared vision.
WBA undertakes programs and activities to address business and technical issues, as well as opportunities, for member companies. WBA work areas include standards development, industry guidelines, trials, certification and advocacy. Its key programs include NextGen Wi-Fi, OpenRoaming, 5G, IoT, Testing & Interoperability and Policy & Regulatory Affairs, with member-led Work Groups dedicated to resolving standards and technical issues to promote end-to-end services and accelerate business opportunities.
The WBA Board includes Airties, AT&T, Boingo Wireless, Broadcom, BT, Cisco Systems, Comcast, Deutsche Telekom AG, GlobalReach Technology, Google, Intel, Reliance Jio, SK Telecom and Viasat. For the complete list of current WBA members, click here.
Juniper Networks today announced plans to integrate its radio access network (RAN) intelligent controller (RIC) with Intel’s FlexRAN platform for Open RAN development.
This joint initiative between two companies is part of Juniper’s continuing efforts to bring openness and innovation to a traditionally closed-off part of the network, providing a faster route-to-market for service providers and enterprises to deliver 5G, edge computing and AI. Juniper views open RAN as an opportunistic endeavor and claims it’s currently testing the RIC integration in labs and trials with some tier-one operators. Juniper’s RIC takes direction from the O-RAN Alliance and adheres to open interfaces and APIs, but the specialized features it adds on top are proprietary.
Juniper has made major investments to lead the shift to Open RAN, beginning with the exclusive IP licensing agreement with Netsia (a subsidiary of Turk Telekom Group), and continuing with significant involvement in the O-RAN Alliance. Juniper is heavily engaged in expanding integrations with key partners and is part of the innovation team building joint customer solutions in Intel’s 5G Lab.
Spending on Radio Access Networks (RAN) is a significant amount of service providers’ CapEx, primarily due to limited vendor choice and closed architectures which lead to lock-in. Juniper recognizes that the RAN is a domain that demands openness and best-of-breed innovation to ensure the best experience for network operators and their customers, and is determined to lead the industry toward that vision.
Juniper’s collaboration with Intel includes the following:
- Juniper RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC) and Intel FlexRAN platform are pre-integrated and pre-validated to enhance usability of a full ORAN-compliant Intelligent RAN system
- Collaborative R&D work with Intel Labs for RIC platform-specific apps to improve customer experience, maximize ROI and drive rapid ORAN ecosystem innovation
- Joint customer testbeds with Intel to validate performance-improving implementation and speed of time-to-market
Juniper is an active member of the O-RAN Alliance, contributing to six working groups and serving as chair and co-chair of the slicing and use-case task groups, respectively. Juniper is also an editor of RIC specifications within the alliance.
“Juniper has always been committed to open infrastructures, which is why we are excited to support the work that Intel has undertaken with their FlexRAN ecosystem. By collaborating with Intel, we are able to deliver cloud-native routing, automation, intelligence and assurance solutions and services that are optimized for our customers’ needs, speeding time-to-market and enabling them to monetize faster.”
– Constantine Polychronopoulos, VP of 5G and Telco Cloud at Juniper Networks
“RIC is like the brain for open RAN, and we also call it essentially the operating system of the RAN,” said Jai Thattil, director of strategic technology marketing at Juniper Networks. Juniper intends to differentiate its RIC from others by pre-integrating and validating the technology so operators can adopt it as part of a more comprehensive offering combined with other services. “Juniper is kind of in a unique position, compared to a lot of other vendors” because of its experience in 5G transport, network cores, service management and orchestration, according to Thattil.
“The virtualization of the RAN continues to gain momentum across the industry as operators take advantage of cloud economics and the delivery of new services. This collaboration with Juniper and the validation of FlexRAN and RIC solutions will assist service providers to overcome integration challenges and accelerate time-to-market for future deployments.”
– Caroline Chan, VP Intel Corporation, GM of Network Business Incubator Division
O-RAN Alliance Threatened:
The O-RAN Alliance is in a crisis because of U.S. sanctions against Chinese vendors in the group has troubled Nokia and Ericsson. In particular, the recent addition to the American “entity list” of three Chinese members of the Alliance. Kindroid, a semiconductor company, Phytium, a supercomputing company, and Inspur, a compute server vendor, have been accused of working with the Chinese military, and have joined 260 other Chinese companies, including, Huawei, on the entity list.
A few days after Nokia decided to suspend its technical activity with the O-RAN Alliance, in fear of American punishment over its engagement at the forum with companies recently put on the American “entity list,” Ericsson expressed similar concerns.
It should not be a surprise that, given O-RAN Alliance’s legacy (born out of a merger of the American-led xRAN Forum and the Chinese-led C-RAN Alliance), there are a strong Chinese contingency. According to Strand Consult, by the end of 2020, 44 of the 200 odd Alliance members are companies from China. Also of concern is this post by Mr. Strand, What NTIA won’t tell the FCC about OpenRAN.
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Intel said that it is helping Reliance Jio make the transition from 4G to 5G as part of their 5G infrastructure deal. Intel and Jio are collaborating in the areas of 5G radio, core, cloud, edge and artificial intelligence.
“…our collaboration spans those areas, and it’s co.innovation. So, we have got our engineering and business unit teams working closely with Reliance Jio in those areas. And we are committed towards helping customers and partners like Reliance Jio to make the transition from 4G to 5G,” Prakash Mallya, vice president and MD of sales, marketing and communications group at Intel told ET.
Intel’s investment arm, Intel Capital, had in 2020 invested Rs 1,894.50 crore to buy a 0.39% equity stake in Jio Platforms.
Separately, Bharti Airtel Wednesday said it is collaborating with Intel for working towards 5G network development by leveraging Virtualized Radio Access Network (vRAN) and O-RAN technologies.
This is Intel’s second 5G-related partnership in India. As per the above, Intel is collaborating with Reliance Jio to help India’s #1 telco with its 5G network development, including in the areas of 5G radio, core, cloud, edge, and artificial intelligence.
Airtel will deploy Intel’s 3rd-generation Xeon Scalable processors, FPGAs, and eASICS, and Ethernet 800 series across its network to build a foundation for rolling out wide-scale 5G, mobile edge computing (MEC) and network slicing which requires a 5G SA core network.
The partnership will also allow Airtel to tap into the hyperconnected world where Industry 4.0, cloud gaming, and virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) become an integral part of daily lives, according to an official statement.
Earlier this year, Airtel became the first telecom operator in India to demonstrate 5G over a live network in Hyderabad using liberalized spectrum.
The Sunil Mittal-led Bharti is also conducting 5G trials in major cities such as Gurgaon’s Cyber Hub in the Millennium city and in Mumbai’s Phoenix Mall in Lower Parel, in partnership with Swedish Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, respectively, ET previously reported.
Airtel also entered into a partnership with Tata Sons and Tata Consultancy Services to deploy OpenRAN 5G solutions, including radio and core. It plans to begin pilot in January 2022.
Jio has developed and tested its homegrown 5G solutions together with its partners in India and plans to export the solutions to global markets once proven at a pan-India scale.
Prakash Mallya, vice president and MD of sales, marketing and communications group at Intel recently told ET that the company is helping Indian telecom operators. On Jio partnership, he said that Intel is helping the Mukesh Ambani-led telco transition from 4G to 5G as part of their 5G infrastructure deal.
Intel’s investment arm, Intel Capital, had in 2020 invested India Rupees 1,894.50 crore to buy a 0.39% equity stake in Jio Platforms.
Randeep Sekhon, CTO – Bharti Airtel said, “Airtel is delighted to have Intel as a part of its rapidly expanding partner ecosystem for 5G. Intel’s cutting-edge technologies and experience will contribute immensely to Airtel’s mission of serving India with world-class 5G services. We also look forward to working with Intel and home-grown companies to unlock India’s potential as a global 5G hub.”
“Airtel is delivering their next-generation enhanced network with a breadth of Intel technology, including Intel Xeon Scalable processors and FlexRAN software to optimize RAN workloads with embedded intelligence, to scale their infrastructure and deliver on the promise of a connected India,” Dan Rodriguez, Intel corporate vice president, Network Platforms Group said in a joint statement.
At MWC today Intel and Capgemini Engineering unveiled the industry’s first Machine Learning-based RAN application to boost 5G spectrum capacity. Capgemini says their solution gives mobile network operators a significant advantage to monetize 5G services faster. Entitled “Project Marconi,” it conforms to O-RAN (Open Radio Access Network) guidelines to maximize spectrum efficiency. The solution intelligently boosts subscriber quality of experience (QoE) with real-time predictive analytics.
Project Marconi is the industry’s first Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning (AI/ML) based radio network application for 5G Medium Access Control (MAC) scheduler. Optimized with Intel AI Software and 3rd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors.
Network providers globally have invested heavily in spectrum and are looking for solutions to develop and gain 5G services faster. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association, the total value of spectrum auctions reached over $27 billion in 2020.
Capgemini’s application (running on Intel Architecture) increases the amount of traffic each cell can handle. It allows operators to serve more subscribers and deliver an outstanding experience, while launching new Industry 4.0 services such as enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) use cases.
Walid Negm, Chief Research and Innovation Officer at Capgemini Engineering said: “Our teams worked closely with Intel to create a truly innovative solution that can really move the needle for operators. We gathered and utilized over one terabyte of data and conducted countless test runs with NetAnticipate5G to fine-tune the predictive analytics to meet diverse operator requirements. In short, machine learning can be deployed for intelligent decision-making on the RAN without any additional hardware requirement. This makes it cost efficient in the short run and future proof in the long run as we move into Cloud Native RAN implementations.”
Cristina Rodriguez, VP of Wireless Access Network Division at Intel said: “Our 3rd Gen Intel Xeon Scalable processors with built-in AI acceleration provide high performance for deep learning on the Net Anticipate 5G platform. Together, our collaboration delivered ultra-fast inference data to enhance the Open-Source ML libraries resulting in an intelligent RAN that can predict and quickly react to subscriber coverage requirements while reducing TCO.”
Capgemini deployed its NetAnticipate5G and RATIO O-RAN platform to introduce advanced AI/ML techniques. The AI powered predictive analytical solution forecasts and assigns the appropriate MCS (modulation and coding scheme) values for signal transmission through forecasting of the user signal quality and mobility patterns accurately. In this way, the RAN can intelligently schedule MAC resources to achieve up to 40% more accurate MCS prediction and yield to 15% better spectrum efficiency in the case studies and testing. As a result, it delivers faster data speeds, better and more consistent QoE to subscribers and robust coverage for use cases that rely on low latency connectivity such as robotics-based manufacturing and V2X (vehicle-to-everything).
More information can be found on Capgemeni’s website.
Last week, Capgemini Research Institute released a report titled, “Accelerating the 5G Industrial Revolution: State of 5G and edge in industrial operations” stating that industrial 5G adoption is still at the ideation and planning stages, with only 30% of industrial organizations having moved to the pilot stage or beyond. This means there is a huge window of opportunity for telcos and those industrial organizations that are yet to make a move.
Signaling a paradigm shift, 40% of industrial organizations surveyed expect to roll out 5G at scale at a single site within two years, and the experience of early adopters could persuade others to make the move. 5G trials and early implementations are delivering strong business benefits, with 60% of early adopters saying that 5G has helped to realize higher operational efficiency, while 43% saying they have experienced increased flexibility.
The study also found that industrial organizations are optimistic that 5G will drive revenues by enabling the introduction of new products, services, and business models. In fact, 51% of industrial organizations plan to leverage 5G to offer new products, and 60% plan to offer new services enabled by 5G.
Furthermore, industrial organizations are aware of the role of edge computing in their 5G initiatives and view it as essential to realizing the full potential of 5G. 64% of organizations plan to adopt 5G-based edge computing services within three years, driven by the increased performance, reliability, data security and privacy it offers. More than a third of industrial organizations across sectors surveyed prefer to deploy private 5G networks, with interest in private 5G networks led by the semiconductor and high-tech sector (50%), followed by aerospace and defense (46%).
“Industrial 5G is a key catalyst in unlocking the potential of intelligent industry and accelerating data-driven digital transformation,” comments Fotis Karonis, Group Leader of 5G and Edge Computing at Capgemini. “Enterprises need to take advantage of the benefits of 5G by engaging with the ecosystem to tap into the shared expertise and co-create innovative, sustainable solutions for tomorrow. An element of iteration is required, but organizations should seek to leverage the 5G ecosystem to jointly test solutions and progress with full-scale 5G adoption, fine-tuning the approach as the ecosystem evolves.”
Capgemini is a global leader in partnering with companies to transform and manage their business by harnessing the power of technology. The Group is guided everyday by its purpose of unleashing human energy through technology for an inclusive and sustainable future. It is a responsible and diverse organization of 270,000 team members in nearly 50 countries. With its strong 50 year heritage and deep industry expertise, Capgemini is trusted by its clients to address the entire breadth of their business needs, from strategy and design to operations, fueled by the fast evolving and innovative world of cloud, data, AI, connectivity, software, digital engineering and platforms. The Group reported in 2020 global revenues of €16 billion.
About SK Telecom
SK Telecom is Korea’s leading ICT company, driving innovations in the areas of mobile communications, media, security, commerce and mobility. Armed with cutting-edge ICT including AI and 5G, the company is ushering in a new level of convergence to deliver unprecedented value to customers. As the global 5G pioneer, SK Telecom is committed to realizing the full potential of 5G through ground-breaking services that can improve people’s lives, transform businesses, and lead to a better society.
SK Telecom says they have attained unrivaled leadership in the Korean mobile market with over 30 million subscribers, which account for nearly 50 percent of the market. The company now has 47 ICT subsidiaries and annual revenues approaching KRW 17.8 trillion.
Intel and MediaTek are partnering to make cellular-connected personal computers. Intel will “define” a 5G PC system spec (“Intel will define a 5G solution specification focused on deployment in key laptop segments”) while MediaTek will develop the 5G cellular chip for those PCs. The first products are targeting availability in early 2021. Dell and HP are expected to be among the first OEMs to deliver laptops enabled with Intel and MediaTek’s 5G solution.
Intel also will help make sure the 5G chip works properly and will help computer makers integrate their processor into PCs (“Intel will also provide optimization and validation across the platform and lend system integration and co-engineering support to further enable its OEM partners.”).
The partnership is also expected to increase the global presence for MediaTek’s 5G modems, which are mainly sold to Chinese smartphone makers. The 5G PC chip is based in part on, introduced earlier this year. From the Intel announcement:
“5G is poised to unleash a new level of computing and connectivity that will transform the way we interact with the world. This partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world’s best PCs.”
–Gregory Bryant, Intel executive vice president and general manager of the Client Computing Group
The partnership helps MediaTek break into a bigger U.S. market and prevents Intel from being shut out of 5G-connected PCs. It also helps Intel defends one of its most important markets: computers. It has long made the majority of chips that go into PCs, but rival Qualcomm has been gaining market traction with its Snapdragon SoCs that were originally designed for smartphones. Qualcomm’s SoCs generally provide better battery life and connectivity that are not traditionally found in computers.
Image courtesy of Intel
The two companies are also working with Fibocom on the development of M.2 modules optimized for integration with Intel client platforms. As the first module vendor for this solution, Fibocom will provide operator certification and regulatory support, as well as lead 5G M.2 module manufacturing, sales and distribution.
Intel earlier this year, a multiple-company, multiple-year effort to make PCs more like computers. Devices are meant to wake instantly, sport brighter screens for outdoor use and have battery life that lasts all day. Project Athena laptops also need to be able to complete a biometric login process in a second or less after a laptop lid is opened, and Athena gets an additional second to connect to Wi-Fi. The first devices are due this year, but they’re not cellular-enabled. For that, users have to turn to Qualcomm-powered PCs.
Last year, Qualcomm unveiled its first processor designed specifically for computers, called the. Qualcomm partnered with Lenovo to introduce its the Snapdragon 8cx 5G compute platform in late May this year. “Consumers can expect more to come from Lenovo and Qualcomm in early 2020,” the Qualcomm said. The chip is powerful but also power efficient, giving users multiple days of battery life on a single charge.
Many PC makers have started using Qualcomm chips. That includes thewhich was unveiled in August and runs on the 8cx. The ultrathin, ultralight laptop has a 13.3-inch touchscreen and sports 23 hours of battery life. It also has built-in LTE.
Intel, on the other hand, struggled to make a cost competitive 5G chip for Apple’s iPhones and was losing lots of money on that project. it exited the cellular modem business After Apple and Qualcomm reached a multiyear chip supply agreement in April, Intel exited the 5G smartphone modem business. This past July, Apple and Intel jointly announced that Apple planned to buy Intel’s smartphone modem business for $1 billion. The deal likely gives Apple access to some of Intel’s work on 5G technology mostly from the latter’s acquisition of Infineon cellular division.
There are only four companies in the world making 5G chips: Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei while only the first two sell into the merchant semiconductor market. Samsung and Huawei largely only use their 5G chips in their own devices (though a new phone from Vivo will use Samsung’s Exynos 5G modem).
MediaTek predominantly supplies modems to Asian (mostly China) handset makers. Its first 5G modem chip/chip set won’t work on any of the 5G networks that have been deployed in the U.S.
Intel and MediaTek now hope their efforts will be enough to fend off Qualcomm and attract PC makers. Other spin offs are also possible, depending on the success of this initial effort.
Qualcomm Competition or 5G Monopoly?
Qualcomm has supplied 5G modems for the vast majority of 5G smartphones sold this year. Intel wouldn’t partner with Qualcomm, a company it views as its chief rival in the semiconductor business. Michael Chertoff, former Head of U.S. Homeland Security penned an oped in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that Qualcomm’s Monopoly Imperils National Security. He wrote:
A monoculture technology system likewise poses substantial risks. If there is some critical flaw in the single system on which the U.S. is dependent, its failure would be catastrophic. These technical vulnerabilities are especially risky in security-sensitive industries such as telecommunications. American reliance on a single chip provider creates an inviting target for adversaries, who would need to find and exploit only one vulnerability to execute a destructive cyberattack.
In the Pentagon’s view, maintaining the company’s economic health is also essential because it is a critical player in the competition with China to develop 5G technology. To be sure, it’s important to support the viability of U.S. firms that can compete with China on 5G, but this hardly justifies the risks of a mono-culture in the defense-industrial base.
Further, the argument mistakenly links two national-security issues in an artificial way. Qualcomm doesn’t need protection in the wireless chipset market to strengthen its competitive edge in the 5G race. To the contrary, it has every incentive to develop leading 5G technologies even in the absence of protection in the chip market.
In the technology race against China, the U.S. should prefer to let competition drive innovation rather than support exclusive national champions. Apart from the economic inefficiency, a single-source national champion creates an unacceptable risk to American security—artificially concentrating vulnerability in a single point. The government’s argument in support of Qualcomm isn’t prudent, and if courts accept it, the result would be a self-inflicted wound to U.S. national interests. We need competition and multiple providers, not a potentially vulnerable technological monoculture.
The Wall Street Journal reported late yesterday that Apple is in advanced talks to buy Intel’s abandoned smartphone modem business for $1 billion, saying that a deal encompassing patents and staff could be announced as early as next week.
Intel announced this past April it was exiting the 5G (and 4G LTE) modem chip business earlier this year after Apple reached a surprise settlement with Qualcomm that would see Apple once again return to using Qualcomm’s modems in its phones. Intel CEO Bob Swan went on to clarify that Intel had abandoned the modem chip business directly because of the Apple settlement — without Apple as a customer, the company concluded that it “just didn’t see a path” forward.
The deal would give Apple access to engineering work and talent behind Intel’s years long push to develop modem chips for 4G LTE and the crucial next generation of wireless technology known as 5G, potentially saving years of development work. Apple has been working to develop chips to further differentiate its devices as smartphone sales plateau globally, squeezing the iPhone business that has long underpinned its profit. It has hired engineers, including some from Intel, and announced plans for an office of 1,200 employees in San Diego.
For Intel’s part, a deal would allow the company to shed a business that had been weighing on its bottom line: The smartphone operation had been losing about $1 billion annually, a person familiar with its performance has said, and has generally failed to live up to expectations. Though it would exit the smartphone business, Intel plans to continue to work on 5G technology for other connected devices.
Intel and Apple have been in off- and on-again talks for about a year. They broke down around the time Apple reached a multiyear supply agreement for modems with Intel rival Qualcomm Inc., The Wall Street Journal reported in April.
Intel had cast a wider net for buyers then and received expressions of interest from a number of parties, but the talks with Apple—long seen as the most-logical buyer—soon resumed.
Neither Intel or Apple sent a delegate to the recently completed ITU-R WP5D Technology Aspects WG meeting where IMT 2020 RIT/SRIT candidate technologies were progressed.
The Apple-Intel discussions began last summer, around the time former Intel Chief Executive Brian Krzanich resigned, people familiar with the matter have said. Mr. Krzanich championed the modem business and touted 5G technology as a significant future revenue stream. When Bob Swan was named to that job in January, analysts said the odds of a deal rose because his focus on cleaning up Intel would require addressing the losses in the modem business.
Intel is the latest Apple supplier to exit a business after the iPhone maker moved to develop components in-house. Late last year, Apple agreed to a $600 million deal to acquire 300 engineers and facilities from Dialog Semiconductor PLC as the company increasingly develops the battery-management chips Dialog had supplied.
Apple has been reluctant to cut big deals in the past, preferring to acquire about 15 to 20 small companies annually that have technology it can easily integrate. But with the slowdown in its iPhone business, the company has become more open to bigger deals. It has been spending its giant cash reserves on share buybacks and dividends (AKA financial engineering). But the iconic company still has a substantial war chest, with $113 billion of cash after debt as of March 30th. Its largest deal to date remains the $3 billion acquisition of Beats Electronics LLC in 2014.
Here’s a timeline of Intel’s rocky relationship with Apple for the iPhone:
- 2007 — 2016: Qualcomm was Apple’s go-to modem provider.
- 2016 — April 2019: Apple put its arm around Intel, hoping it could offer the same chips as Qualcomm for a lower price.
- April 16, 2019: Apple begrudgingly settled lawsuits with Qualcomm, and agreed to use its chips again for at least 6 years.
- Also April 16, 2019: Since Apple broke up with it, Intel announced it was done with smartphone modems.
After the Apple / Qualcomm deal, Intel reportedly began searching for a buyer for its modem business. Apple makes a lot of sense as a buyer. Prior to Apple and Qualcomm settling, Intel became the sole third-party modem provider for the 2018 models of the iPhone. And Apple has long been Intel’s only major customer for modems — nearly every other major Android phone relies on either Qualcomm or in-house solutions.
If Apple is able to effectively use Intel’s patents, research, and engineers into a functioning 5G chip assembly line, Qualcomm will lose the power it has over the iPhone. If not, there won’t be any competition and Qualcomm will keep charging high prices for 5G chipsets. Qualcomm is the only chip company to date that is able to offer modem chips for 5G phones, so Apple has no choice but to work with them unless it acquires Intel’s 5G modem chip business.
Just a few hours after the Qualcomm-Apple legal settlement was announced on April 16th, Intel Corporation said in a press release that it would exit the 5G smartphone modem business. The company plans to complete an assessment of the opportunities for 4G and 5G modems in PCs, internet of things devices and other data-centric devices. Intel will also continue to invest in its 5G network infrastructure business.
Intel will continue to meet current customer commitments for its existing 4G-LTE smartphone modem product line, but does not expect to launch 5G modem products in the smartphone space, including those originally planned for launches in 2020.
“We are very excited about the opportunity in 5G and the ‘cloudification’ of the network, but in the smartphone modem business it has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns,” said Intel CEO Bob Swan. “5G continues to be a strategic priority across Intel (?), and our team has developed a valuable portfolio of wireless products and intellectual property. We are assessing our options to realize the value we have created, including the opportunities in a wide variety of data-centric platforms and devices in a 5G world.”
Intel said in the above referenced press release (also see References below) that it expects to provide additional details of its 5G strategy in its upcoming first-quarter 2019 earnings report and conference call, scheduled for April 25th.
A 5G Intel logo was displayed at the Mobile World Congress on February 26, 2019 in Barcelona.
Comment and Analysis:
In 2018, as Apple’s legal battle with Qualcomm heated up, Intel became Apple’s sole supplier for 4G-LTE wireless chips in the iPhone. Intel additionally was working to develop 5G chips for Apple to use in future versions of the iPhone. The company regularly participates in both 3GPP and ITU-R WP5D meetings directed at IMT 2020 (the ONLY 5G wireless/radio interface technology standard). However, recent reports have indicated that Intel was “missing deadlines” for the pre-standard 5G chip that was slated to go into the 2020 model of the iPhone. Note that Apple also participates in the ITU-R WP5D IMT 2020 standardization meetings.
Fast Company reported earlier this month that “in order to deliver big numbers of those modems in time for a September 2020 iPhone launch, Intel needs to deliver sample parts to Apple by early summer of this year, and then deliver a finished modem design in early 2020.” That design would likely be based on 3GPP Release 15 NR, as Release 16 wont be completed till the spring of 2020.
If Intel had failed to provide Apple with (pre-standard) 5G chips in a timely manner, that would have put Apple in an untenable position. The iPhone’s competitors would be able to offer 5G capabilities using Qualcomm chips, while Qualcomm could have denied Apple access to 5G chips as long as the patent battle continued. That’s over now, as Apple will surely use Qualcomm 5G chips in its future iPhones, iPads and other products.
More importantly, it appears that Apple was Intel’s ONLY volume customer for 4G-LTE chips so the company felt it would be a huge struggle to attract new customers for its planned 5G silicon. Moreover, it was widely reported that Intel was selling 4G-LTE chips to Apple at a LOSS as seems to be corroborated by CEO Bob Swan’s statement above: “It has become apparent that there is no clear path to profitability and positive returns in the smartphone modem business.”
With Intel’s exit, there appears to be ONLY TWO 5G merchant semiconductor companies- Qualcomm and MediaTek. Huawei and Samsung are developing their own 5G silicon for use in their smartphones and base stations, but they are NOT likely to be sold on the open market to competitors.
Finally, we don’t know how 5G can be a “strategic priority” at Intel when they have consistently failed to profit from the network equipment business after making billions of dollars of acquisitions in the late 1990s and early 2000s (e.g. WiMax, optical networking, Dialogic, etc). While Intel silicon is inside most IBM compatible PCs, they are NOT in hardly any smartphones or tablets, portable gaming machines, or other cellular connected equipment. Hence, we wonder how the 5G strategic priority will evolve into profitable products.
The only “strategic priority” area we can come up with is Intel’s processors inside new wireless connected autonomous systems (e.g. remote controlled drones, industrial robots, self driving cars or other vehicles, etc) that uses Qualcomm 5G silicon. Wireless Autonomous Systems (WAS’s), which Intel Labs has been researching, will surely require ultra low latency and high reliability. Those capabilities are NOT in 3GPP Release 15 NR, but will be included in 3GPP Release 16 and the first IMT 2020 RIT standards that won’t be finished till the end of 2020. That implies the first 5G WAS’s products won’t be available till mid 2021 at the earliest.