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Intel is rushing its second 5G modem because its first one can't win

New chips are announced all the time, and while some turn out to be critical components in hot products, few are as important as Intel’s upcoming XMM 8160 — the chipmaker’s second 5G modem. The company says that it “made a strategic decision to pull in the launch of this modem by half a year to deliver a leading 5G solution,” a tacit acknowledgement that its first 5G chip, the XMM 8060, won’t be able to match the earliest efforts of top competitor Qualcomm.

Understanding the significance of this announcement requires a little background on both 5G and Intel. Carriers and manufacturers around the world are rushing to support the recently finalized 5G cellular standard, which promises radical increases in mobile device speed and responsiveness — assuming a device contains a new 5G chip. Intel previously promised that it would release its first 5G modem — the XMM 8060 — in mid-2019, but as of now no smartphones have been announced with the chip.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm has signed around 20 companies to make 5G devices using its chips. Inseego’s first 5G home broadband modem is already in some U.S. homes, and Netgear will release the first 5G mobile hotspot this month, both with Qualcomm chips inside. But smartphones are by far the most popular products in the mobile space. To that end, Motorola has committed to using Qualcomm modems in its 5G Moto Mod accessory, and Xiaomi has said the same about an upcoming 5G version of its Mi Mix 3.

Despite the imminent launches of 5G networks across the world, Qualcomm and Intel have both struggled to produce 5G components small enough to squeeze into modern smartphones. While Qualcomm initially showed off a surprisingly large 5G test phone, it subsequently revealed smaller, second-generation antennas that could be used in pocket-sized devices. Meanwhile, Intel publicly showed oversized 5G prototypes that would not fit into conventional tablets or phones and announced that it was preparing to bring 5G laptops to market in late 2019.

The XMM 8160 announcement was expected. On November 2, a report indicated that Apple would miss the first generation of 5G phones because it was waiting for the “XMM 8161,” a cooler and more energy-efficient sequel to the XMM 8060. (The slight part number difference between the announced 8160 and reported 8161 chips is likely a specific variant of the broader 8160 family.) According to the report, Apple planned to give Intel around a year and a half to work out issues with the XMM 8161, while keeping smaller vendor MediaTek as a just-in-case backup.

Several of the XMM 8160’s specifications are public. Not surprisingly, it’s promising support for both millimeter wave and sub-6GHz radio spectrum, with download speeds up to 6Gbps. And it promises to include both 5G support and legacy compatibility for 2G, 3G, and 4G networks within a single chip, a superior implementation to the two-chip requirement of early 5G modems.

As Intel notes, this will avoid the “added complexity, power management, and form factor adjustments of two separate modems for 5G and legacy connectivity” that will be found in rival products. In other words, a single-chip 5G solution means phone designers will be able to create smaller, simpler, and lower-powered devices.

One open question is how cool and power-efficient the XMM 8160 will actually be. While Intel is showing an image of the new modem that’s “smaller than a U.S. penny,” it’s unclear how the company will actually manufacture the chip, given its recent struggles to move from the aging 14-nanometer chipmaking process to 10-nanometer manufacturing. By comparison, Qualcomm could move from a 10-nanometer process to an even smaller 7-nanometer chip for its next-generation modem. We reached out to Intel to ask whether the chip will use a 7-, 10-, or 14-nanometer process and were told that the company will “have more to share on this in the future.”

Regardless of how it’s made, Intel is saying that it expects the XMM 8160 to be available to partners in the second half of 2019, with the part shipping in initial commercial devices “in the first half of 2020.” Unless Apple gains early access, that appears to confirm the reported 2020 timeline for a 5G iPhone launch. Selling tens or hundreds of millions of 5G iPhones is likely the only way Intel has a shot at “winning” the 5G modem market. Other top phone makers will likely be using 5G chips made by Samsung, Qualcomm, Huawei, and MediaTek. At least now Intel now has a real chance of competing with them.

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