Intel is partnering with Mediatek to integrate 5G modems into its standard PC platforms.
Intel was initially speculated to create a 5G modem itself, since the sale of its modem business to Apple only consisted of assets and technologies related to smartphones. However, the company annnounced a surprising move to partner with Taiwanese chipmaker MediaTek for 5G modems and will be using MediaTek-branded modems in future PC systems, starting in early 2021.
The two companies are also working with Fibocom on the development of M.2 modules optimized for integration with Intel client platforms. As the first module vendor for this solution, Fibocom will provide operator certification and regulatory support, as well as lead 5G M.2 module manufacturing, sales and distribution.
Currently, Qualcomm is the biggest player in 5G modems. However, it seems that Intel is considering Qualcomm as a competitor in its core CPU business because of Qualcomm’s Arm-powered PC CPU offerings (such as the current 8CX). These Qualcomm CPUs are powering the Always Connected PCs (ACPCs), including the new Microsoft Surface Pro X, Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy Book 2, as well as existing offerings from HP, Lenovo, and others.
MediaTek is a strong player in modems, as well as many other areas, such as smart TVs, smart speakers, and many other categories. The challenge for MediaTek to date has been that its modems are primarily used in mid-range and lower-end smartphones that aren’t widely sold in the US.
MediaTek’s 5G modems currently support only sub-6 GHz frequencies, and the announced project with Intel will also only support sub-6. Qualcomm's 5G modems support both sub-6 and millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies. The biggest downside to mmWave is that the range of the frequency is very limited and, most importantly, doesn’t pass through walls or windows to the indoors, where PCs are more likely to be used. On the other hand, all of Mediatek's 5G modems are multi-mode, meaning that a single modem supports everything from 2G to 5G, whereas Qualcomm’s current 5G modems are only for 5G and require another modem chip for 4G and below.
Intel's rival AMD has already started partnering with Qualcomm for 5G.
PC vendors are planning to bring 5G-equipped PCs to market in 2020, and virtually all of them are going to be using Qualcomm’s 5G modems.