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Intel Speeds Up the Launch of 5G

By Billy Duberstein – Nov 30, 2018 at 10:14AM

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Can the chip giant find fresh traction when 5G speeds arrive?

Intel (INTC 1.25%) has recently been the poster child for delayed products. Production hiccups have caused repeated delays for its next-generation 10-nanometer core processing units (CPUs), which the company now claims will be out by the 2019 holiday season. At the same time, Intel failed to anticipate the growth of the personal computer market this year, leading to a shortage of its current 14-nanometer chips for this year's holiday season.

But in a welcome change, Intel plans to speed up the introduction of its new 5G modem by six months so that it's ready in late 2019. Intel has been attempting to diversify its business away from CPUs, where it has a dominant market share but lower growth prospects, and into things like mobile, autonomous vehicles, and field-programmable gate arrays, a circuit that can be configured by a consumer after manufacturing. 

Intel's new timeline also has implications for the progression of 5G networks and phones, which may start to make an appearance in the next year or two.

Two young women smile and look at their mobile phones.

Image source: Getty Images.

The new 5G modem

Intel's new modem, called the XMM 8160 5G, will be mixed-mode -- meaning it will support both existing 4G and 5G -- and will deliver up to 6-gigabit-per-second speeds. For perspective, leading 4G phone modems deliver only up to 50 megabits per second, which means these 5G modems are expected to be at least 120 times faster than your existing phone.

The new modem will support 600 megahertz to 6 gigahertz spectrum, and will also be available for multiple devices, including PCs, phones, and broadband access gateways (e.g., home network routers and modems).

This will actually be the company's second-generation 5G chip -- the first (the 8060) had already been produced, it was not made available for consumers. So the 8160 will be the first Intel 5G modem that consumers will use. And while all of this sounds impressive, what are the implications for the chip titan?

When will they be available, and who will use them?

Intel signaled that the 8160 5G modems will be available in the second half of next year, which means you may begin to see 5G-enabled devices by 2020. These are expected to be the modems in future 5G-enabled iPhones, likely slated for September of 2020, as Apple (AAPL 1.92%) is exclusively using Intel modems in its 2018 iPhone line. Intel is eager to please Apple, at least modem-wise, because there have been rumors that the technology giant may completely ditch Intel CPUs in its Macs in favor of Apple's own in-house chips. 5G modems offer a way for the chipmaker to maintain at least some business with this all-important customer.

In addition, Intel's chips will be available to other customers looking to get into 5G -- including clients in China. Back in September, Intel announced a partnership with Chinese phone giant Huawei, as well as a number of other Chinese clients in telecom and cloud industries. 

Coming soon to a town near you?

Some wireless carriers are already touting their 5G "offerings." Verizon Communications (VZ -1.77%) is claiming to have the first "5G" service in the United States as of Oct. 1 in four cities: Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. One should note, however, this isn't "real" 5G, but more like 4G-plus, with up to 1 Gbps speeds (though more realistically, 300 Mbps on your phone). That's about the high end of current fiber cable, but not quite what 5G promises. Also, because there are no 5G phones out yet, you can't actually access "true" 5G in these cities yet.

The fact of the matter is that 5G's true arrival will likely be a 2020 event and beyond. Even when we get there, we don't know exactly what 5G will ultimately look like, how much it will cost, and the types of technology that may grow in conjunction with it.

Impact for Intel

For Intel, these new modems probably won't affect the company's financial returns that much -- or at least, not in the near term. Intel's mobile modem revenue isn't broken out specifically, but is instead grouped with its Mobileye self-driving software, silicon photonics, and other ethernet products in a segment called "Adjacents." The adjacent business made up just 19% of the company's revenue last quarter.

Of course, should the tech titan's growing modem business take off with 5G design wins, it could make a difference. Intel only had a single-digit market share of the $21.2 billion mobile baseband market in 2017 -- good for sixth place. If the company is able to increase that as the new 5G standard comes on, the modem business could become meaningful. Therefore, Intel's 5G ambitions and product introductions certainly bear watching.

Billy Duberstein owns shares of Apple. His clients may own shares of some of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple.  The Motley Fool recommends Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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