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Intel Preps Morphing 5G Testbed

5G is coming fast. The next generation of global wireless networks is presumably going to power everything from huge networks of agricultural sensors and self-driving cars to augmented reality in homes.

Today, Intel announced a test platform that will support the core radio technology for 5G—5G NR—this December, even though the standard won't be fully baked until next year, and we won't see real 5G rollouts until 2019. What's more, this may be the 5G tech used in the iPhones of 2020.

Intel's new Mobile Trial Platform is the kind of thing we need to use to get to those rollouts, according to Asha Keddy, VP of client and IoT business and systems architecture, and GM of next generation and standards at Intel. The company's test platform—along with similar units from Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm and other vendors—lets wireless carriers make sure all their planned equipment will work together, preventing embarrassing glitches when they flip the switches.

Intel 5G Equipment

"We're working with infrastructure partners like Ericsson and Nokia as the standard is being set, so we can make sure that the needs of the infrastructure partners are met and we don't have mistakes," Keddy said.

5G-compatible gear is starting to spread through the industry. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told us that his carrier is starting to bolt up 5G-upgradeable base stations on its new 600MHz rural cell sites.

Intel's new boxes have some pretty cool tech inside. They're partially based on FPGAs, essentially reprogrammable processors that can change shape based on their code. FPGAs tend to be slow and less efficient than dedicated chips, but the technology is perfect when you're designing a processor for a standard that's evolving while your hardware is in place.

Because pre-5G doesn't fit into anything small quite yet, the trials we're hearing about generally have to do with home or outdoor installations. Intel is delivering AT&T DirecTV over pre-5G in Austin and home internet over pre-5G in Indianapolis, and we saw a 5G demo in Finland earlier this year (video below) that streamed a 360 camera to a distant VR headset.

But Intel's worth keeping an eye on in part because of its growing relationship with Apple. Last year, Apple turned to Intel to provide half the modems in its iPhone 7 series, making it Intel's largest phone client, and we expect that relationship to grow. Intel's 5G may thus become Apple's 5G.

Rise of the Machines

Trying to guess what the big uses of 5G will be now is like trying to guess what LTE was going to be like in 2006, says Rob Topol, general manager for Intel's 5G technology and business group. You can make some guesses based on what the network is built for, but the applications are going to develop later.

When Intel and others were planning 4G, for instance, "we were focusing on devices that would require extreme productivity … a laptop, a productivity device; surely a smartphone was not going to be the focus point," Topol laughed. "The smartphone was really a novelty device, and we didn't know what it was capable of yet."


But mobile social networking, media delivery, and image sharing turned out to be the dominant uses of 4G. For 5G, Topol is betting on machine-to-machine communications changing the world. This means self-organizing, self-monitoring systems, whether they're autonomous cars or smart city power grids.

"As you go into the next decade, we're going to go into an area where more of the machines talk to each other directly," he said. "A lot of that information doesn't need to go up into a core network." That sort of direct, device-to-device networking is much easier with 5G than 4G, he said.

But just as you didn't see Snapchat until 4G had really gotten going, some of the more transformational uses of 5G may not crop up until a few years in—especially because the 5G standard is divided into two releases, about two years apart. 5G providers will focus on "enhanced mobile broadband" for the first few years, with the machine-to-machine stuff coming later, Topol said.

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The big accounting firms are under pressure from digital disruption just like every industry these days, but PwC is trying a proactive approach with a digital accelerator program designed to train employees for the next generation of jobs. To do this, PwC is not just providing some additional training resources and calling it a day. They are allowing employees to take 18 months to two years to completely immerse themselves in learning about a new area. This involves spending half their time on training for their new skill development and half putting that new knowledge to work with clients. PwC’s Sarah McEneaney, digital talent leader at PwC was put in charge of the program. She said that as a consulting organization, it was important to really focus on the providing a new set of skills for the entire group of employees. That would take a serious commitment, concentrating on a set of emerging technologies. They decided to focus on data and analytics, automation and robotics and AI and machine learning. Ray Wang, who is founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research says this is part of a broader trend around preparing employees inside large organizations for future skills. “Almost every organization around the world is worried about the growing skills gap inside their organizations. Reskilling, continuous learning and hand-on training are back in vogue with the improved economy and war for talent,” he said. PwC program takes shape About a year ago the company began designing the program and decided to open it up to everyone in the company from the consulting staff to the support staff with goal of eventually providing a new set of skills across the entire organization of 50,000 employees. As you would expect with a large organization, that started with baby steps. Graphic: Duncan_Andison/Getty Images The company designed the new program as a self-nomination process, rather than having management picked candidates. They wanted self starters, and about 3500 applied. McEneaney considered this a good number, especially since PwC tends to be a risk-averse culture and this was asking employees to leave the normal growth track and take a chance with this new program. Out of the 3500 who applied, they did an initial pilot with 1000 people. She estimates if a majority of the company’s employees eventually opt in to this retraining regimen, it could cost some serious cash, around $100 million. That’s not an insignificant sum, even for a large company like PwC, but McEneaney believes it should pay for itself fairly quickly. As she put it, customers will respect the fact that the company is modernizing and looking at more efficient ways to do the work they are doing today. Making it happen Daniel Krogen, a risk assurance associate at PwC decided to go on the data and analytics track. While he welcomed getting new skills from his company, he admits he was nervous going this route at first because of the typical way his industry has worked in the past. “In the accounting industry you come in and have a track and everyone follows the track. I was worried doing something unique could hinder me if I wasn’t following track,” he said. Graphic: Feodora Chiosea/Getty Images He says those fears were alleviated by senior management encouraging people to join this program and giving participants assurances that they would not be penalized. “The firm is dedicated to pushing this and having how we differentiate this against the industry, and we want to invest in all of our staff and push everyone through this,” Krogen said. McEneaney says she’s a partner at the firm, but it took a change management sell to the executive team and really getting them to look at it as a long-term investment in the future of the business. “I would say a critical factor in the early success of the program has been having buy-in from our senior partner, our CEO and all of his team from the very start,” She reports directly to this team and sees their support and backing as critical to the early success of the program. Getting real Members of the program are given a 3-day orientation. After that they follow a self-directed course work. They are encouraged to work together with other people in the program, and this is especially important since people will bring a range of skills to the subject matter from absolute beginners to those with more advanced understanding. People can meet in an office if they are in the same area or a coffee shop or in an online meeting as they prefer. Each member of the program participates in a Udacity nano-degree program, learning a new set of skills related to whatever technology speciality they have chosen. “We have a pretty flexible culture here…and we trust our people to work in ways that work for them and work together in ways that work for them,” McEneaney explained. The initial program was presented as a 12-18 month digital accelerator tour of duty, Krogen said. “In those 12-18 months, we are dedicated to this program. We could choose another stint or go back to client work and bring those skills to client services that we previously provided.” While this program is really just getting off the ground, it’s a step toward acknowledging the changing face of business and technology. Companies like PwC need to be proactive in terms of preparing their own employees for the next generation of jobs, and that’s something every organization should be considering.

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