Interview: Intel's Rob Topol Details The Company's 5G Roadmap

Away from the chaos of the showfloor at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Intel’s Rob Topol (General Manager for 5G Business and Technology for the company’s Communication and Devices Group) spoke to media about the company’s ambitions to become a dominant player for a wireless standard that’s only just been officially standardized.

Topol, an Intel veteran of 18 years, got his start in manufacturing before moving into the company’s wireless research and development group.

He says that, for Intel, a lot of 2017 was focused on the non-standalone 5G specification, building up relationships with future partners in the space and conducting a number of pre-standard trials.

“Much of what we were trying to do was build the necessary IP on the network and on the client side to where, once we had the standard, it was only minor changes to the IP to be able to support that,” he says.

“After doing a lot of the IP development, we decided to move directly to a multi-mode solution. The first commercial 5G platform we’re targeting in 2019 is a all-mode 2G-through-5G, CDMA full-support, single-chip and that’ll be shipping in 2019,” he confirms.

“As we go into 2018, there is a focus on completing many of the trials based on the new radio (NR) specification [and] finishing study items on standalone 5G.”

According to him, “you’re going to see companies that deploy both non-standalone and standalone [5G], so we do want to see the standalone specification be finished this year and then we’ll start to move to a  second-generation of XMM products after that.”

This year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona saw Intel reveal plans to collaborate with Dell, HP and Lenovo on the first wave of 5G-enabled PCs, announce a multi-year collaboration with Spreadtrum to develop a 5G phone platform featuring the Intel XMM 8000 series modem and conduct their first 5G NR public interoperability demonstration in cooperation with Huawei.

Speaking on the topic of the OEM partnerships, Topol clarifies that “it’s not just [about] the PC form-factor. We’re going to be doing some co-engineering with them on variants of the PC.”

“We also announced a partnership with Spreadtrum, which is really a scaling opportunity with Spreadtrum supporting the local OEMs in China. So what we’ll doing is taking our multi-mode modem and pairing that with the Spreadtrum application processor.”

He says that there will be further announcements to come regarding this but “at this stage, we’ve really been focusing on making sure we’ve got a strong multi-mode platform.”

“To be a little frank, it’s a little early to announce some of the design limits because we’re still working out the thermals and the power characteristics of putting 5G into a small handsets. When you’re talking about speeds of upwards of 5-gigabits per second that’s significant thermal challenges in a device so, as with other vendors.”

“We’re looking through different reference designs and making sure we can support [them],” Topol explains.

He says that the 2-in-1 unit that’s on display at the company’s MWC booth required “some very innovative heat-dissipation technology.”

“That’s why we focused the announcements on the co-engineering.”

According to him, “It would be very easy to just announce OEM partnerships but there’s a bit of work to be done and we’re excited to do that.”

He says “it’s not just an Intel issue - it’s an industry issue.”

When asked how the company plans to avoid repeating the mistakes of its past - specifically, its positioning on 4G - Topol says that Intel’s efforts here grounded and guided by a desire to be involved in co-developing the ecosystem around 5G.

“We did things differently with 5G. Two years ago - when we started the 5G development work - we actually separated the design track from the work we were doing in 3G and 4G. So we dedicated a seperate design team that focused on the standards work and early prototyping for 5G.”

“We did that to make sure we were not distracting teams that were working on 3G and 4G but also that we were looking at 5G in a very open way. New architecture, new capabilities -so we essentially started that work in parallel and now we’re converging those tracks together.”

“So the first thing I’d emphasize is that we developed 5G differently to 3G and 4G. Secondly, we focused on ecosystem partnership.”

As he puts it, they focused on being cooperative rather than disruptive - a shift in strategy that they say has already begun to yield results.

He says “Intel has had more than 25 trials already with network operators and telcos.”

Looking beyond the 2019-2020 rollout of 5G, Topol claims that 5G has a lot of potential to change not just what we can do with technology but also the ways we interact with it.

“If you look back in history, we started by writing things. Then we moved to typing. Then we moved to touch. Now, you see a lot more voice-activated stuff. The next wave is ambient computing - it’s technology’s awareness of humans and our presence. The point is that the technology starts to follow you.”

“The content starts to follow you, as you move from place to place. It’s not so much about the smartphone in your pocket, it’s the fact that more things are connected around you and the way that you use an Alexa in your home, the way that you request for information or ask for things to be done, I think it’ll reduce the dependency on the smartphone itself.”

“I don’t want to imply that smartphones aren’t going to be important in 5G but over the next five years, you’re going to utilise things that do what your smartphone does but doesn’t require you to carry it in your pocket.”

For a longer look at everything that happened at this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, click here.

Disclosure - Our coverage of MWC 2018 was sponsored by Intel who covered the cost of our flights and accommodation.

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