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Photo by Jack Sloop on Unsplash

Intel Stakes Out a Wide Swath in the 5G World

There’s a fault line in the coming world of 5G, and it falls pretty much between the radios.

On one side, ARM and a vast range of partners are all over the trillion expected Internet of Things (IoT) devices out at the periphery — all the smartcams, doorbells, store beacons, fitness trackers, earbuds, home hubs, home robots, motion detectors, smart locks, voice controllers, thermostats, smart lights, smoke alarms, smart plugs, pollution monitors, smart switches, highway beacons, smart sensors, medical monitors, building monitors, in-car systems, and many more. By virtue of its relentless focus on low power consumption, the ARM ecosystem stands to inherit the market for the myriad devices on the outer ring. These devices, able to deliver a package of computing and communications that fits the stingy constraints at the far end, will thrive on this parsimony, right up through the highly-integrated 5G radio.

At the other end of that radio, however, Intel comes into its own. People with only a casual acquaintance with Intel’s 5G story may remember that the company sold its 5G modem effort to Apple after being soundly bested by Qualcomm in a head-to-head battle to supply 5G radios to smartphone suppliers. But all along, Intel has been building up its position at the other end of that radio link. At the network edge, where all that information from the periphery is gathered, sometimes processed, and passed back and forth, the radios come in gangs attached to network processing equipment, where Intel, if not king, is at least a prince among princes.

The specialized requirements of networking equipment play to Intel’s strengths: its field-programmable gate array (FPGA) business, acquired in whole in 2015 as the now-subsidiary Altera, allows soft reconfiguration by network operators in the field, a highly valuable capability. And behind the FPGAs, Intel’s Xeon processors provide the horsepower, at a competitive cost, to run high-speed networks.

This week, Intel announced a suite of products designed to cement its place in the 5G world. The suite includes a new Atom processor, the P5900, an integrated system-on-a-chip (SoC) manufactured in the 10nm process, Intel’s most advanced. The P5900 is designed specifically for 5G base stations.

The company also released what it calls 2nd generation Xeon scalable processors in an array of variants. These workhorses are aimed at network infrastructure deployments, with a built-in artificial intelligence foundation and hardware-level security features. The new Xeons have more cores, threads, and cache than the previous generation.

Also debuting is a product Intel calls Diamond Mesa, a structured application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) for 5G network acceleration. In specificity and flexibility, Diamond Mesa falls between Intel’s highly flexible Agilex FPGA, and the company’s custom ASICs, which can achieve higher performance at a sacrifice of flexibility.

Finally, on the hardware side, Intel brought out the Ethernet 700, its first 5G network-optimized Ethernet board. The Ethernet 700 offers precision synchronization to meet the stringent timing requirements of 5G networks.

In addition, Intel announced software tools to help customers get 5G network nodes up and running, and partnerships with network suppliers Altiostar, Cisco, Dell, Deutsche Telecom, HPE, Lenovo, QCT, Rakuten, VMware, and ZTE.

Although it is not ready to announce specifics, Intel also is engaged with radio radio-access network (RAN) makers Nokia, Ericsson, and ZTE which will provide the dense 5G radio transceivers that talk directly to individual 5G endpoints in the field (mostly phones today, but increasingly IoT devices). Behind these base-station radios, Intel parts will provide powerful network computing.

The company already has a solid position in current-generation 4G base stations, and it expects to hold a 40% share of all base-station deployments by next year. Presumably, a big chunk of the rest will be held by Huawei, but Intel wasn’t giving the Chinese company any light when it briefed analysts last week.

Taken together, Intel’s 5G announcements demonstrate a clear commitment to the next-generation wireless market. Although you may not find many Intel modems in smartphones and IoT devices (it will have some, since it is sourcing mobile 5G radios from MediaTek for certain applications and continues to pursue video endpoints through its MobileEye subsidiary), there will be plenty of the company’s 5G silicon on the infrastructure side — in base stations and networking equipment — all the way from the edge to the core.

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