The one thing that every 5G smartphone (so far) has in common

Credit: Intel

With LG, Xiaomi, Oppo, Samsung, Sony and others all showing off their first 5G smartphones at this year's Mobile World Congress, it appears that Intel faces an uphill battle to break Qualcomm's grip on the smartphone modem market.

Intel famously failed to embed itself as the go-to modem manufacturer for 3G and 4G handsets, and delays to the arrival of the company's first 5G modem risk history repeating itself, even if the company can keep Apple onside in the short term.

For mainstream smartphone vendors, four 5G modem options are currently exist:

  • Qualcomm's X50M 5G
  • MediaTek'sHelio M70
  • Huawei's Balong 5000
  • Samsung's Exynos 5100

Intel's first 5G modem, the XMM 8160, was previously slated to launch this year. However, at this year's Mobile World Congress, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Network Platforms Group Sandra Rivera provided an update.

More specifically, she revealed that Intel's 5G modems won't make their way into consumer products until 2020.

Credit: Intel

In fairness, it does look to be worth the wait. Intel are promising a that the XMM 8160 will deliver speeds up of to 6 gigabits per second and bundle together support for both standalone and non-standalone 5G and offer legacy support for 4G, 3G and 2G networks. It's the whole package, and a step above the capabilities of its Qualcomm counterpart to boot.

However, Intel's sluggishness in bringing their next-generation mobile modem to market appears to be already costing them. Thus far, the majority of vendors have already gone with Qualcomm. Oppo, OnePlus, ZTE, Sony, LG and Samsung's first 5G devices are all seemingly-set to use Qualcomm's X50M 5G modem in their handsets.

Alcatel Mobile South East Asia Pacific & General Manager Sam Skontos indicated to us at this year's MWC that the company scuttled plans to use Intel's modem due to the delay. Instead, Alcatel's first 5G phone will rely on the Qualcomm X50M.

Meanwhile, Huawei's future handsets (including their foldable Mate X) are set to rely on their own solution.

Still, Intel’s Jonathan Woods isn’t worried.

The senior director of the company's ecosystem and business development advanced technologies group, he insists to us that Intel “are executing on our strategy and performing very well against our existing strategy.”

Asked about the current trend towards Qualcomm by consumer smartphone manufacturers, Woods says that “I think you’ll find that we have our certain set of customers who we supply to and we focus on supplying to"

“With regards to smartphone, we have a very strong presence in terms of shipments of units that we have in smartphone both in LTE today. We anticipate we want to grow that into 5G and we’re very focused on that, so you’ll see a continuation of that strategy.”

"We have a winning formula because we have reference platforms that can provide the full solution for the OEM ecosystem. That’s essentially where we focus on the value to our customers and every one of our customers wants us to provide a complete, integrated solution.”

Credit: Intel

“The integration effort and cost of bringing products to market is quite high, and if the supplier of the technology can solve a lot of those products early on and bring that platform approach, that’s a real big advantage and that’s where we differentiate.”

According to him, “it de-risks their deployment and therefore brings a lower cost of ownership long-term.”

“It’s complicated to certify. It’s complicated to bring products into market. And the advantage of having someone come along and solve all that is a very compelling proposition.”

Big surprise - Woods says that Intel are opting for a scaling strategy here.

"We believe that when the market scales we need to be there in time with a product that has a global SKU in terms of RF and it has to be powerful enough to support NSA and an SA configuration.”

He claims that “there will be other companies that you’ll see announcing with Intel radio technology” in due time” beyond just the ACPC (Always-Connected PC) category. However, in the meantime, Woods comments to us suggest this will be Intel's primary focus.

Credit: Intel

Since gaming is often cited as a use case for 5G, we asked Woods how long he thinks it’ll be before the ACPC category expands into the interactive entertainment niche space.

“If we truly believe 5G is one of the enablers then we’re into mid-to-late next year and 2021 but cloud gaming has its own trajectory and I think operators have latched onto that as one area where they think they can differentiate using this new radio technology.”

Speaking about the potential of the category as a whole and how ACPC pricing will shake out over time, Woods says that “I think the game-plan is all about scale. I think if you’re in the position where you can scale, then you can get it to an attractive cost point. There always is pressure if you want to enter a new segment and typically it does start a little higher.”

Disclosure - PC World Australia's coverage of this year's MWC in Barcelona was sponsored by Oppo who covered the costs of our flights and accommodation.

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Fergus Halliday
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