Intel wants 5G in laptops, but sold its modem business to Apple. To get the chips it needs Intel has signed a deal with MediaTek to provide connectivity, but only when there’s no Wi-Fi around.
The new laptop modem will be a customized M70, and MediaTek will be providing the RF Front End as well as baseband. However, this 5G chipset is only going to support sub 6GHz – at least until “proof of desirability” has been established for mmWave connections to laptops.
Cellular connectivity in laptops has been tried many times before, notably by Qualcomm which promised Wi-Fi would be made redundant by 3G (Gobi, 2008) and by 4G too. Intel tried a similar thing with WiMAX, but that couldn’t survive without support from mobile network operators, and so we come to 5G.
Intel would have liked its own modems in laptops, but sold its cellular modem unit to Apple having failed to produce a competitive offering. That leaves a pretty short list of potential partners: arch-rival Qualcomm can be discounted, Samsung is an unlikely partner, and Huawei is off the table for anyone who wants to sell into the US, which makes MediaTek the obvious (it not only) choice.
Intel reckons that 3% of laptops currently have cellular connectivity, and while that will increase the company doesn’t expect cellular connections to replace, or even rival, Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi 6 offers performance comparable to 5G, on a good day, but it’s the pricing which ensures its longevity as Intel is happy to point out.
As long as the mobile network operators need to recover their capital expenditure through monthly billing then Wi-Fi isn’t going anywhere, and Intel is still very firmly in the Wi-Fi semiconductor business. For Intel (and probably everyone else) 5G is going to be an additional connection, not the replacement that cellular operators were hoping it would be.