In April of this year, Intel cancelled its 5G-modem building plans. This week, it’s announcing that they’re back on the table—but this time, with system-on-chip vendor MediaTek building the hardware.
The partnership has Intel setting the 5G specifications, MediaTek developing the modem to match, and Intel optimizing and validating it afterwards. Intel will also lend its marketing and integration muscle to convince OEMs to use the new hardware and help them make sure it works well in final products. This also means Intel will be writing operating-system-level drivers for the modems.
The partnership looks like a sensible one for both parties: Intel has been struggling to get its own 10nm hardware out the door on time, so getting this hardware design task off its plate may relieve some pressure there, while still keeping the company in an emerging market. MediaTek, on the other hand, can definitely benefit from Intel’s software development expertise and deep integration with OEM vendors in the PC space.
Specifically, the companies will be adapting MediaTek’s existing Helio M70 5G modem for use in PC hardware. The M70 modem is already being built into MediaTek’s Dimensity family of ARM System-on-Chip (SoC) designs; the new partnership gives MediaTek a whole new platform to market to and gives Intel a foot back into the door in 5G. It also may represent a way for Intel to push back against ARM-based Windows hardware like Samsung’s Galaxy Book S, built on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8cx platform.
The Helios M70 is a 5G FR1 modem only—meaning sub-6GHz communication, which shares RF characteristics (and, in a broad sense, most performance characteristics) with existing 4G technology. 5G FR2, which operates in the millimeter-wave spectrum, is where the most jaw-dropping performance improvements come from—but it’s also where the most operational problems come from, since it requires a very clear line of sight from transmitter to receiver.
The Intel/MediaTek collaboration is a long-term project, and we expect to see the resulting hardware shipping some time in 2021.