Qualcomm vs. Intel: the 5G race is on

Qualcomm’s announcement that its X50 5G modem is delivering gigabit-per-second data speeds may put the San Diego chipmaker in the 5G driver’s seat for now, but the race is just getting started. While Qualcomm clearly dominates the market for 4G/LTE chipsets, the company is running neck and neck with Intel when it comes to 5G.

“Intel is definitely ready for 5G NR!” said analyst Stéphane Téral, executive director at IHS Markit. “They have been at the forefront of major development since Day 1. They already have a 5G radio frequency front end at 28GHz and 39GHz for the U.S. market that goes live next year as well as a 5G radio frequency integrated circuit transceiver at sub 6GHz for China, Europe, Korea and Japan.”

5G NR is 5G New Radio, a radio access technology for frequencies that are higher than those used by LTE. Before network operators launch standalone 5G NR technology, some are expected to deploy “non-standalone” 5G NR equipment. Non-standalone 5G NR uses new chipsets to transmit and receive data, but controls that data using today’s LTE equipment.

“You could find that there are companies that want to commercialize non-standalone because they already have significant investment in LTE,” said Intel solutions architect Robert Toepfer. “To just add the 5G NR function might be an easy thing to complement a network they’ve already invested in. … If you’re going to be deploying service as an overlay in the exact same place, and maybe you’re not expanding your footprint or coverage but you’re now upgrading your service to supporting machine-to-machine communications, supporting higher broadband, those are cases where you’d see non-standalone deployments more common.”

The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is expected to release a standard for non-standalone 5G NR before the end of the year. Intel announced several weeks ago that its 5G mobile trial platform will support live tests and trials using the non-standalone NR standard when it becomes available in the fourth quarter. Qualcomm, which led the charge to standardize non-standalone 5G NR, is also expected to be ready when the standard is released.

Both chipmakers will conduct 5G trials with the major U.S. wireless carriers. The most recent announcement here comes from Qualcomm, which said it is working with Verizon Wireless and Novatel Wireless on millimeter-wave over-the-air field trials. Qualcomm is also expected to conduct trials this year with AT&T and Ericsson.

Meanwhile Intel has partnered with AT&T to test 5G fixed wireless in Austin, and has partnered with Verizon in Indianapolis.

Intel was also part of the first public live 5G network, launched this fall by Swedish operator Telia. That network uses Intel’s mobile trial platform along with Ericsson 5G antennas, radios and baseband units. It uses 5G to connect to a Wi-Fi network onboard an anchored ship, and also to remotely control a construction excavator.

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