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Intel ends 5G modem alliance with Beijing-backed chipmaker (nikkei.com)
161 points by ishikawa 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

I can add a bit of technical context here. High-end phones usually have a baseband chip separate from the main SoC. There is also an RF chip and some discrete components in front of the antennas. Qualcomm is quite dominant, but Apple has switched to Intel over the last few years.

In low- or mid-end phones the baseband is usually integrated in the main SoC. Taiwanese MediaTek is the biggest supplier. Unisoc clearly wants to compete with MediaTek, and Intels modem division has trouble getting into low-end phones as nobody wants complete Intel SoCs in phones. So they agreed to integrate Intels modem as an IP block in Unisoc chips.

In tablets and the few laptops that have mobile data the baseband + RF are usually on a modem module, M.2 or similar. The Librem 5 phone also takes this approach.

I thought Qualcomm integrated all that onto the SOC after LTE. LTE was a huge battery drain at first because they weren't integrated.

Am I not understanding something here?

> LTE was a huge battery drain at first because they weren't integrated

No, the modem/SoC integration is not a big factor. Having an internal communication inside a single SoC will always be a bit better than going through an external interface, but it's not a significant impact when compared to the total phone power consumption. As other have said, iPhones have an external modem and are fine. Qualcomm insisted on this because they had it, and they're good at marketing.

LTE was a drain at first for the same reason 3G was a drain at first. Cellular standards are designed to have a long life, and are over dimensioned initially. Then Moore law and other optimizations kicks in and make things more acceptable. This is intentional, otherwise the standard would not make the best use of technology over time. And this is something where we need to keep an eye for 5G: Moore law, strictly speaking (higher density for the least cost process. One can still get better, for a higher price) is over. Hopefully 5G will have properly taken this into account.

But then for 5G a big part of the power will be in the RF front-end, with all those antennas. Here too it'll be interesting to see how it evolves over time.

> As other have said, iPhones have an external modem and are fine. Qualcomm insisted on this because they had it, and they're good at marketing.

Addressing the second sentence - I have no knowledge of what transpired but my assumption would be a combination of Apple didn't want to have their SOC's fab'd by Qualcomm for the sake of an integrated modem, and Qualcomm didn't want TSMC fab'ing their modem IP into Apple's SOC's, so the obvious solution was a discrete modem which was a product they could offer.

The wording makes it extremely unclear. Both Company don't "Fab" those SoC. What you are suggesting is Qualcomm doesn't want to give the IP to Apple for Modem SoC Integration, and Apple doesn't want to give their IP to Qualcomm's SoC designed specially for Apple.

While those point are valid they are not the reason Apple have a separate Modem Chip. The design of iPhone had the Modem literally in a completely isolated system, and act more like a USB modem directly connected to the Internal iPhone for security purposes.

And as other have mentioned the integrated of Modem within the SoC have minimal impact to overall battery life.

Qualcomm is also fabless and switched from Samsung to tsmc.

It's almost certainly due to Apple wanting flexibility in changing suppliers. Qualcomm was also not going to give them the rf crown jewels either

your understanding is correct except apple everyone else using qualcomm's soc in premium phones uses integrated baseband inside qc's soc. There is one difference though first launches at the time of "G" tansitions i.e. 3g to 4g,4g to 5g also use discrete modems because technology is generally not mature enough to be integrated into soc.

Ok, that makes sense. And is yet another good reason not to get a gen one 5G phone...

Security wise it’s much better having the separated usb connected baseband. Much more control of what comes in and out of the application processor.

Qualcomm sells discrete modems as well. (Apple used to be their major customer for them).


Apple devices (and a handful of android tablets) use separate baseband chips. Most android SoCs have the baseband on the same silicon as the arm cores.

Qualcomm's first 5G modems (the ones that will ship this year) will not be integrated into the SoC.

I wonder if China has developed the mmWave in silicon that will be required for the beam steering front ends?

Huawei is far ahead of others in mMIMO technology and have this implemented in their BTS boards, although right now it is done in FPGA not ASIC.

Has anyone else been experiencing horrendous data speeds with their iPhone XS? I only ask because this was the first model shipped with an Intel modem, amd compared to my 6S this is nowhere near as fast or reliable over 4G and LTE.

>I only ask because this was the first model shipped with an Intel modem

7, 8 / X All had a version with Intel Modem. XS is, however the first model to ship only with Intel Modem.

I don't think it has horrendous Data Speed. But it is certainly has a different characteristics to Qualcomm Modem. XS is generally weaker with signals, and we are not quite sure if it was the 4x4 MIMO or the Intel Modem. XR doesn't seems to be as bad so a guess would be due to Apple's implementation of 4x4 Antenna. While ALL phones had problems with 4x4 Antenna in their first generation, that includes Samsung and Huawei, you generally expect Apple, being a year late to the tech would have ironed out most of it.

But generally speaking, a Qualcomm Modem would still get better signal than Intel. This is especially a problem in US where the Cell Tower Density is lower as compared to Asia / EU counterpart.

There has also been 3 to 4 Modem Firmware revision since launch, and likely more to come in iOS 12.2, let just hope ( pray ) Intel's next Modem 7660 is actually better. And Apple could actually put a rounding error budget into their Antenna Design, because as far as Flagship Smartphone is concerned, iPhone has the worst one.

Or Qualcomm will relent and work with Apple again, but judging from the Court testimony this seems highly unlikely.

I've noticed my iPhone 8 (confirmed Intel modem) has a terrible time with weaker signals compared to my wife's Samsung 6.

I am surprised there hasn't been more buzz about the degraded antenna performance by the public.

I think people don't switch between iPhones and Android phones enough to notice.

I certainly noticed when I switched from my iPhone X to a Pixel 3 XL. I went to known dead spots, and my Pixel 3 worked just fine. I had just chalked it up to T-Mobile sucking but I guess it was really the phone.

Carriers are lying about signal strength.

Trying to be just mildly sarcastic here, but do you think this will be a case of "you're holding it wrong"?

I know where the attenaes are placed versus where your hand is placed can block signal. But is this a similar case, or just a limitation of the tech? I mean 5G uses higher wavelengths, which inherently penetrate weeker into structures, etc. So: what's the problem? I only briefly studied antennae theory in college and have never practiced in theory, so I hope its viewed as an honest question.

When i went from Pixel 2 to iPhone XR, the signal drop is noticeable also i find LTE speeds are faster on Pixel 2 than on XR.

This is interesting. Do you work in a field where you get to test phone modems?


AFAIK there is still a sensitivity and LTE capability gap between Qualcomm and Intel.

Kind of sad Apple doesn't think that's worth the extra ~$10 or so on a $1000 phone.

> Kind of sad Apple doesn't think that's worth the extra ~$10 or so on a $1000 phone.

I believe cost is only one part of the reason. The much more important part is, I think, control.

I think at this point the bridge between Apple and Qualcomm is pretty well burned, especially after all the legal nastiness. I'm wondering if Apple will move some of its chip design talent to fabricating their own modems. It seems that Apple has been trying to pull more stuff in-house for greater integration and performance (plus more profit). This is also supported a job posting someone uncovered: https://bgr.com/2018/05/01/iphone-5g-chip-apple-qualcomm-int...

Apple really doesn't like putting all their eggs in a single vendor basket.

It was my understanding that when Apple started using both Intel and Qualcomm modems that Qualcomm started telling Apple they would have to pay "full price" for patent licensing on the Intel modems, and things deteriorated.

Who paid for that "study"?


Yeah, no.

"This study has been done entirely independently, and Cellular Insights takes full responsibility for the analysis and opinions in this report. We have self-funded the procurement of iPhone 7 Plus units through commercial retail channels."


So... who paid for it?





1. in a way that is free from outside control or influence.

2. without outside help; unaided.

Who paid for it?

We all know ho paid for it, so you can keep repeating whatever you want.

They said they fully did it on their own. I guess you like unsupported conspiracy theories? Is that your thing?

It appears the site is run by Milan Milanović, who works for Ookla. He writes extensively on wired and wireless networks.


Sure thing, he bought equipament that costs millions of dollars and did that just so he could post on his site that only opened when Apple started not using Qualcomm modems, right?

It's Qualcomm propaganda, like it or not.

Yeah I've been heavily following phones the last few weeks as I was considering switch to an iPhone (just ordered the s10 5 minutes ago) and the XR modem is a constant complaint on reddit and in reviews. I'd send links but I'm walking through to work. I can't remember if the non XR phones have the same complaint off the top of my head. I feel like they did and the XR was just way more common to hear about (probably due to far more people with XRs).

It was a very common complaint in youtube and reddit comments anytime a review was posted.

My XS has given me mindblowing performance on Vodafone UK, certainly better than my iPhone 7. I guess your mileage may vary.

actually, most of the carrier locked iphone x's were also shipped with intel chips.

I assume Intel realized this "partnership" was not worth China stealing all of its IP and designs only to come up with a competing product that 90% as good and half the price a couple of years later?

If only more companies realized the same. Not that this means they won't have to protect themselves against China's relentless IP stealing.


I assume Intel realized this "partnership" was not worth China stealing all of its IP and designs only to come up with a competing product that 90% as good and half the price a couple of years later?

Not a couple of years later. A couple of hours later.


Don't forget the Nortel situation...


Holy shit, that picture at the top is the most propaganda-brainwashed-picture I have seen since looking at old cold war pictures. As if the US is in a good vs. evil fight. Well it might be, but on which side?

Well, the Chinese government is bad but the us is led by people who are chaotic evil, increasing the chance for the us do immoral things - and it's not like things such as supporting Saudi Arabia in Yemen started with our current loser leader. The citizens of most countries would probably like to be free of concern about the world ending or pointless wars. Unfortunately both places have sizable groups of nationalistic-oriented people who are hugely pumped up about saying "their country" is the world's greatest, exceptional, etc, so bellicose comments have too much support.

While we are tearing apart our democracy in the us step by step, we'll eventually get a different leader who is more interested in doing useful things and less interested in a cult of personality and less interested in doing any venal thing to get support for his base. Meanwhile, China is stuck with a dear leader for life. The country grows ever more powerful, but also is increasing in it's terrifying Orwellian oversight. I'm afraid that China will show it's possible to watch everyone all the time and crush freedom and then other western authoritarian leaders will follow suit.

Lawful evil is still evil.

I'd argue the US and China have more chaotic/lawful neutral elements, at least with the former valuing nobody above themselves and breaking the laws when convenient, and the latter's obsession with stability at the cost of freedom. It would be hard to say either's political leaders take pleasure in doing and spreading evil every waking moment. At least per the below anyway, surely there are counterarguments too: http://easydamus.com/alignment.html#theninealignments

That seems more like a problem of interpretation...

Agree with this, but I have no idea what the out-of-proportion people climbing on Mt. Rushmore are supposed to be about.

It's less propaganda and more like an image salad.

Not really sure, either. But also the running assumption that `blue=good` and `red=bad`. I mean, otherwise trains and bicycles don't emblazon "bad" to me... I don't get it.

It seems telling to me that someone would make out that one frame was inherently "good" while the other was inherently "evil".

I perceived it as anyone can climb their way up to be a President of the United States.

They largely won’t because they’re all short term motivated.

>I assume Intel realized this "partnership" was not worth China stealing all of its IP and designs only to come up with a competing product that 90% as good and half the price a couple of years later?

No, the US realized they're in a trade war with China, and companies follow suit on their master's orders on both sides.

Not saying anything for or against, but whose laws are being broken since it is considered theft?

Patent laws which the US happily ignored while its economy was developing and collecting IP. China will also soon be at a point where they’ll be more interested in protecting their IP against developing countries

So basically the thinking is that China is bad/evil because it doesn't follow US law? Does it also count as bad/evil when the US dowsn't follow Chinese law?

Where can I, a technical person, learn about 5G? I'm interested in what makes it better? What tradeoffs are being made? What are the implications of those tradeoffs? etc

Incidently Unisoc has launched its 5G modem today:


So they manage to launch a 2G - 5G MultiMode Modem inline with other Industry leaders ( Comparatively Speaking ) Like Intel and Qualcomm.

And Intel decide to end the partnership? Something doesn't sound right. Or did they get IP from other players?

Unisoc bought Spreadtrum a few years ago and Spreadtrum has been in the modem business since 2010 with its 3/4G modems doing ok in many medrange to low end smartphones, e.g. Samsung J1, Samsung Z series.

Thx, didn't know Spreadtrum is now UniSoc. I was wondering when did Intel sign an agreement with a company other than Spreadtrum. I should have looked it up first.

Now all this makes much more sense. But they had really crappy Modem in the past, as compared to MediaTek in the low end segment. I guess this 5G IP is part of the coming XMM 8160.

Chinese companies have been working on multimode chips for 20 years and are leader in 5G.

5G is the new space race and sooner than later we're going to have a Sputnik moment. Everything coming out of China needs to be taken with a grain of salt but it definitely seems likely that they will have a head start in 5G deployments, especially as Europeans seem resistant to US demands to boycott Huawei.

no, 5g is hype. seriously, unless you want to live in a dystopian society where everything is "connected" it's not really a big deal

Every previous "G" was a big deal in terms of opening up new applications and business opportunities by significantly improving latency, bandwidth, and power efficiency. Going from 4G to 5G will eventually have just as huge an impact as going from 3G to 4G did, although rolling out the technology worldwide will be a slow gradual process.

Will it though?

The frequencies are so easily blocked by anything that you need transmitters everywhere and receivers everywhere - literally 5G phones will have to have 3+ separate 5G antennaes in different locations to avoid the signal being outright blocked by your hand.

5G devices will practically need line of sight to a transmitter.

There is 5G and there is 5G mmWave. They are two separate parts of "5G". There are still advantages to sub 6GHz standard cell phone frequencies such as lower latency and higher throughput.

The disadvantages you mention only apply to 5G mmWave.

I doubt it. Based on home internet soultions, going from <1Mbps speed to 10 makes a difference, going to 100 not so much, and gigabit range is useful for bragging rights only. 95% of end users do not have such bandwidth needs.

You get diminishing returns even on exponential scaling.

Ofc some possibilities do open, like cloud backup, or even personal data servers, but they are laregly unexplored as of today.

I cant imagine what would 5G bring practical to the phone, bandwidth doesnt seem a killer. Latency is probably acceptable as well. Maybe im too limited.

The latency reduction will deliver a major improvement in user experience, even if throughput doesn't increase much.

LTE already has good latency. IIRC at about ~5ms on the last hop.

when 5g comes we will all:

- feel the internet on our phones is about the same speed as it is now

- pay the same amount each month on phone bill

- have same low coverage areas as we already do

- see a bigger number on the top row of the phone

I guarantee the incumbent network operators in the US will find some way to role us into $100/mo plans.

Or an MVNO like Fi.

It has the potential to put ISPs out of business, so I'm sure AT&T and Verizon will have some new phone bill/bundle package to attempt to steal business from Comcast.

I've never met a single person that actually wanted to stay with Comcast. So would it really be stealing? /s

Think about how many of the most popular apps right now would be unusable on a 3g connection. Uploading/viewing an entire feed of images and videos on social media, streaming shows and twitch, online shopping feeds that need to load tons of product images, etc. The speed bump from 3g to 4g was what allowed these entire industries to flourish.

In terms of the improvements from 4g to 5g, going from 40mbps to 400mbps may not yield super noticeable improvements right now, but you know what will? 5g's other big feature, wired internet levels of low latency. That means things that require instant feedback like remote controlling delivery drones or surgeons performing remote surgeries by controlling a DaVinci robot in the middle of africa from their office in the US.

So no 5g is not hype, the focus is just too much on the speed and not enough on the possibilities opened by 5ms latency on devices connecting miles away from a tower.

The problem isn’t the technical standards: Right now in my living room I get around 10 Mbps download on 3G (HSPA) and around 20-30 Mbps on 4G (LTE). Latency between the two is almost the same: 1 to 2 ms difference. In some places 3G is still better due to better signal conditions.

I remember getting those speeds back in 2009, ten years ago, when the maximum speed I could get on cable was 3 Mbps.

Main difference, and I guess the real business growth motivator, are the data caps. Back then I had a data allowance in the low hundreds of megabytes which made streaming music and video an expensive endeavor, while the cheapest plans now start at a couple gigabytes.

Cable latencies in the last mile won’t help when your patient is half a world 250ms away due to the speed of light. But it might enable gaming and other real time uses, though.

In general, shared-usage spectrum(like what wifi uses) can adapt faster to new uses.

So one way to guess uses for 5G is to ask:

Is there anybody using those frequencies for low-latency wireless communications ? what is their use case ?

We're getting closer and closer to that future regardless of what we want.

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