Intel puts mobile chip failures in its past with first speedy 5G modem

Intel will ship its first 5G modem to testers in the second half this year

Intel has a disastrous history with smartphones. It fumbled a chance to be in Apple's first iPhone, and then quit making its Atom smartphone chip to focus on modems.

But the company is now set to ship a groundbreaking modem that will deliver data transfer rates many times faster than most wired internet connections.

The chipmaker will start shipping its first 5G modem for testing in the second half this year. Beyond mobile devices, the modem could also be used in autonomous cars, servers, base stations, networking equipment, drones, robots, and other internet-of-things devices.

In name, 5G is the successor to 4G in today's mobile devices, but it's significantly faster and more versatile. It will combine multiple wireless high-speed and low-bandwidth technologies and enable communications across an array of spectrum bands. New 5G networks are expected to be deployed starting in 2020.

The Intel 5G Modem, as it's called, is designed to provide download speeds in excess of 5Gbps, which is five times faster than today's fastest 4G modem. It's also five times faster than Google Fiber, which offers speeds of up to 1Gbps.

But don't expect the modem to be installed in smartphones immediately. It will be used mainly for testing on 5G network deployments. It will also be used to test possible 5G applications, still being explored in areas like automotive tech.

The benefits of 5G are enormous. Download and upload speeds will go up for devices like drones, robots, smart devices, and industrial equipment. Faster networks will help autonomous cars intercommunicate over long distances about weather and road conditions. 

The technology will improve mobile health-care services, which need reliable connections for patient monitoring. It will also help IoT devices remain in constant contact with servers running analytics.

Intel believes as wireless becomes ubiquitous, there will be more opportunities to put its 5G modems in devices. The 5G Modem is a big move for Intel when its mobile chip future was in question after many false starts.

Intel's effort to put Atom chips into smartphones was a colossal failure, and the company wasted billions of dollars on the lost cause. Last year, it bailed out of the smartphone chip market and refocused on modems.

Apple will reportedly use Intel's 4G modems in its next iPhone, and that's a major win for the company. Apple also uses modems from Qualcomm, which is considered ahead of Intel in modem technology.

Qualcomm announced its first 5G modem, the Snapdragon X50, in October. Intel is slowly catching up, but Qualcomm also has the advantage by integrating high-speed modems inside its Snapdragon chips that power smartphones. Intel does not plan to offer Atom chips for smartphones anytime soon, though it has hinted that it could make such chips if opportunities arise.

Intel until now provided FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) that could be programmed to mimic modems. But the 5G Modem will be needed to obtain results from real-world testing.

The new 5G technology will be important for autonomous cars, which may make driving decisions by consulting remote servers to recognize objects, signs, and lights, said Kathy Winter, vice president and general manager of the automated driving division at Intel.

Intel also announced autonomous vehicle development kits ready for 5G at CES. Intel is also building an autonomous car with BMW and Mobileye that could be ready to hit the streets by 2021. It's possible that Intel will put its 5G modem in that car.

Intel's 5G Modem supports the sub-6GHz band, where cellular networks typically operate. It also supports the 28GHz millimeter-wave band, which should enable deployment trials in U.S., South Korea, and Japan, Intel said. The 28GHz band allows for faster data transfers and is expected to be used for 5G networks.

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