Intel Turns Its Focus to 5G Networking

At the Mobile World Congress show, the giant chip maker unveils a range of partnerships and products designed to accelerate the transition to 5G.

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Intel officials want to establish the chip maker as a dominant player in the developing world of 5G networks, and are using the Mobile World Congress 2016 show this week to make that message clear to the industry.

At the show, which runs through Feb. 25 in Barcelona, Spain, Intel is laying out a broad array of partnerships with industry players designed to drive innovation, research and development around 5G and unveiling new products that move the company and industry down the path toward 5G.

The company was famously late in responding to the rapid rise of smartphones and tablets several years ago, and also backed the WiMax standard for 4G networks, which eventually lost out to LTE. Under CEO Brian Krzanich's almost-three-year-old tenure, the chip maker has been aggressive in pursuing emerging markets like the Internet of things (IoT), wearable devices and networking gears, and is targeting 5G networking as an important space.

The skyrocketing growth in the number of connected devices and systems worldwide—Intel officials are predicting more than 50 billion such devices by 2020—the rise of bandwidth-sapping applications like video in mobile networking, and the looming trends toward smart cities and connected homes are putting increasing pressure on networks that need to become faster, smarter, more efficient and more flexible, according to Intel officials.

The company wants to supply the technology that underpins not only the underlying infrastructure but also the massive numbers of connected devices. With 5G, the industry will see the cellular network transform from a personal communications platform—such as current 3G and 4G networks, which primarily help link devices like smartphones and tablets—to a computing platform, according to Aicha Evans, corporate vice president of Intel's Platform Engineering Group and general manager of the chip maker's Communication and Devices Group.

Standards for 5G are not expected to be adopted until about 2020, but there is a strong push on by Intel and other tech vendors and telecommunications companies to push R&D around the next-generation networks now. That drive can be seen in the broad array of announcements about 5G efforts coming out of MWC. Intel does not plan to be late with the transition, Evans said during a conference call with journalists last week.

"It is essential to lay the foundation for future 5G networks now to make amazing experiences of the future possible," she said, adding that the move to 5G represents a "fundamental shift" for the industry. "It's essential to get ahead of the curve. … Intel is early to the game, which is good."

Collaborating with other vendors will be crucial going forward, Evans said. The company on Feb. 22 announced an array of partnerships, including a high-profile effort with Cisco Systems and Ericsson to create what officials with all companies said will be the industry's first 5G networking router.

In addition, Intel is working with Ericsson and other mobile network operators on 5G products and joint trials. The chip vendor also is working with South Korean telco KT to develop 5G field trials scheduled for 2018, LG Electronics to develop and test 5G telematics technology for next-generation connected cars, Nokia on prestandard 5G radio technologies and network offerings around 5G mobile clients and wireless infrastructures, and SK Telecom on developing and testing 5G mobile device and network offerings.