12 Nov Intel’s New XMM 8160 5G Modem Brings Us Closer To Standalone 5G

This blog includes contributions from Moor Insights & Strategy principal analyst Patrick Moorhead.

Intel XMM 8160 5G modem. INTEL

5G is one of the most transformative technologies that has surfaced in the last ten years. It has the capabilities to reshape many industries including mobile devices, the IoT, smart transportation, VR, AR, manufacturing, and even the datacenter.  5G is a decade-long game, but will start becoming a consumer reality in 1H 2019.

Many of the 5G announcements that have happened this year have primarily been for networks that are pre-5G, like Verizon 5G Home. To be considered an actual (some call “real”) 5G network, the device or modem must be “5G NR compliant”, which is the standard established by the global 3GPP standards body made of all the biggest cellular technology companies in the world. Intel has been moving towards a 5G NR compliant future with their previous 5G modems like the earlier “Gold Ridge” modems which were pre-5G. Following the Gold Ridge chipset, Intel moved on to announce the XMM 8000 series which included the XMM 8060, which was supposed to be the company’s first 5G NR compliant commercial modem. Principal analyst Patrick Moorhead wrote about Gold Ridge and the 8060 here. However, Intel announced today the XMM 8160, the company’s first commercial multi-mode 5G modem with support for both standalone and non-standalone 5G NR and therefore the 8060 will not be commercialized.

Supports both NSA, SA and is multi-mode

Intel XMM 8160 supports a wide variety of modes, bands, and frequencies. INTEL

The XMM 8160 is a replacement for the XMM 8060, which we had previously written about as Intel’s first 5G commercial modem but will not be commercialized. The XMM 8160, like the 8060 is a multi-mode modem that it will now come in both standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR versions for different regions. The difference between SA and NSA 5G NR is that SA has a network built for 5G NR. NSA uses 4G core to operate the 5G radio front-end to accelerate 5G adoption and get the network rolled out faster. However, most NSA networks will not have the capabilities that are being promised for SA 5G like ultra-low latency or network slicing because they need a new 5G core. The reason why supporting SA is important for anyone is because Chinese operators are expected to roll out their SA 5G networks in 2020, and this should drive a lot of demand for 5G.

The XMM 8160 is Intel’s 2nd generation of multi-mode 5G modems which means that it also supports 4G, 3G, and 2G connectivity. Having multi-mode capability is designed to ensure that any device that implements the Intel XMM 8160 modem does not need a second modem for legacy connectivity to save on space and cost. The modem also has support for EN-DC which allows for simultaneous 4G and 5G connectivity. This is the way all 5G modems will be, eventually.

Intel XMM is multi-mode so it doesn’t need extra 2G, 3G, 4G modems.      INTEL

Supports a broad range of frequencies and speeds

The New XMM 8160, according to Intel, will have a peak throughput of 6 Gbps using 800 MHz of bandwidth which is significantly faster than any of the LTE modems out today. Intel also says that the XMM 8160 will do 4.7 Gbps peak throughput on sub-6 frequencies using 200 MHz bandwidth. While I would like to compare this modem’s performance to other 5G modems, we are still in early days, and I’m hesitant to directly compare it to anything from Huawei, Qualcomm or Samsung because we have yet to see commercial devices in the wild with 5G NR from anyone. That said, AT&T and Netgear did announce a 5G mobile hotspot is coming this year with Qualcomm’s X50 modem inside, so we will be able to start to see real-world speeds soon. Another good thing about the XMM 8160 is that it will also support all the bands that carriers care about, which include 600 MHz all the way up to 6 GHz. In addition to the Sub-6 frequencies, which will be extremely important, Intel will also support mmWave frequencies with the XMM 8160 including 26 GHz, 28 GHz, and 39 GHz. These are the frequencies currently being discussed for mmWave 5G NR cellular connectivity, and 28 GHz and 39 GHz are the ones that matter most to global operators.

Intel says chips ship 2H ’19, devices expected 1H ‘20

Intel’s expectation is that these new Intel XMM 8160 modems will ship in the second half of 2019 with commercial devices shipping with the modems in them in the first half of 2020. The company would not provide details on samples. Shipping in early 2020 devices would mean that Intel is likely to have PCs and home gateways with the 8161 first and then later in the year we’d probably see a 5G smartphone. So far, we’ve been able to predict Apple’s use of Intel’s 5G modems well, and it seems that fall 2020 (September-October) would be the logical point where Apple releases a 5G iPhone with the 8161 modem inside. Unless Intel gains more phone customers for their modem business, which is possible, this is the kind of schedule that we can expect for an Intel-enabled 5G phone from Apple. However, almost nobody uses discrete modems anymore other than Apple, and nearly all of them are integrated inside of the SoC, making the discrete modem market pretty much just Apple.

Intel expects that the company will have timed 5G rollouts across North America, China, APJ and EMEA, especially if you consider that many of the later networks will probably go live in late 2020 and early 2021. Its extremely important for Intel to hit these 2020 timelines for their customers because Intel is also a sponsor of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the Japanese operators are working vigilantly to have their networks up by then. While the first half of 2020 does seem quite a way away from now regarding the mobile world, we are starting to get a better idea of exactly what Intel’s strategy around enabling mobile 5G.

Wrapping up

Last four Intel modems.  INTEL

Intel is already a leader in 5G enablement with base stations, edge compute, network transformation and the datacenter. The 8160 is the first announced 5G modem supporting 5G NSA, SA, and 4G, 3G, 2G multi-mode, which will give the company bragging rights, but I do expect others to join soon with integrated solutions versus discrete. The XMM 8160 is Intel’s confirmation of their commitment to mobile 5G NR and how it will accomplish it within what’s needed and expected, likely driven by Apple’s needs. Intel is quite clearly not going to be the first to deploy mobile 5G NR, but the 8160 strikes me as a “pull-in” versus my understanding of what the 8160 follow-on schedule was supposed to be and could do this with the 8060 discontinuation. What we will be looking for next from Intel would be some small device demonstrations of the 8160 in a smartphone-sized device as well as details on the RF implementation.