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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."

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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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Facebook’s Kodi box ban is nothing new

According to recent reports, Facebook has updated its Commerce Policy to specifically ban the sale of Kodi boxes on its site – that is, devices that come with pre-installed Kodi software, which are often used for illegally streaming digital content. However, the ban is not a new one – Facebook confirms its policy on Kodi box sales hasn’t changed since last summer, and its external Policy Page – the one being cited as evidence of the new ban – was updated in December. It’s true that the changes have flown under the radar until now, though. The policy change was first reported by Cord Cutters News, and later linked to by TorrentFreak and Techdirt. The original report claims that Facebook added a new rule on its list of “Digital Media and Electronic Devices” under “Prohibited Content,” which specifically calls out Kodi boxes. It says that Facebook posts “may not promote the sale of devices that facilitate or encourage streaming digital content in an authorized manner or interfering with the functionality of electronic devices.” The Policy page lists a few examples of what this means, including wiretapping devices, jamming or descrambling devices, jailbroken or loaded devices, and, then “promoting the sale or use of streaming devices with Kodi installed.” (The only permitted items are “add-on equipment for Kodi devices, such as keyboards and remotes.”) But this ban on Kodi boxes, Facebook says, is not a recently implemented policy. According to a Facebook spokesperson, it launched a new policy last summer that prohibited the sale of electronic devices that facilitate or are intended for unauthorized streaming or access to digital content – including Kodi boxes. This policy has not changed since last summer, but its external Policy Page – this one being cited by the various reported – was updated in December 2017 to offer additional illustrative examples and more detailed information on all its policies, including the one related to unauthorized streaming devices. In other words, Facebook has been banning Kodi boxes since it decided to crackdown on unauthorized streaming devices last year. It’s just now being noticed. The ban affects all posts on Marketplace, Buy and Sell Groups, and Shop Sections on Pages. Facebook explains it takes a very strong enforcement approach when “Kodi” is mentioned with a product for sale. As Techdirt pointed out, that’s problematic because the Kodi software itself is actually legal. However, device makers like Dragon Box or SetTV have been using the open-source Kodi platform and other add-ons to make copyright infringement easier for consumers. Facebook does seem to understand that Kodi software isn’t illegal, but it knows that when “Kodi” is mentioned in a product (e.g. a device) listing, it’s very often a product designed to circumvent copyright. The company tells us that its intent is not to ban Kodi software altogether, however, and it’s in the process of reviewing its guidelines and these examples to more closely target devices that encourage unauthorized streaming. That could mean it will, at some point, not outright ban a device that includes Kodi software, but focus more on other terms used in the sale, like “fully loaded” or some sort of description of the illegal access the box provides, perhaps. (Facebook didn’t say what might change.) As for Kodi, the company says Facebook’s move doesn’t affect them. “It doesn’t impact us, since we don’t sell devices,” says Keith Herrington, who handles Business Relations at the XBMC Foundation (Kodi). He said his organization would love to talk to someone at Facebook – since they’ve never been in touch – in order to ensure that devices that are in compliance with Kodi’s trademark policy are not banned. Both Amazon and eBay have worked with Kodi on similar policies, he added. “We’ve gotten thousands of devices which were in violation of our trademark policy removed from eBay,” Herrington said. It’s unclear how well-enforced Facebook’s ban really is – I’m in Facebook groups myself where people talk about how to jailbreak “Fire sticks” and include posts from those who sell them pre-jailbroken. (It’s for research purposes. Ahem.) Industry crackdowns go beyond Facebook Facebook isn’t the only company that’s attempting to crack down on these devices. Netflix, Amazon and the major studios are suing Dragon Box for facilitating piracy by making it easy for consumers to access illegal streams of movies and TV shows. In January 2018, a U.S. District Court judge handed down a preliminary injunction against TickBox TV, a Georgia-based set-top box maker that was sued by the major studios, along with streaming services Netflix and Amazon, for profiting from the sale of “Kodi boxes.” Google has removed the word “kodi” from the autocomplete feature of Search, along with other piracy-related terms. And more recently, the FCC asked Amazon and eBay to stop selling fake pay TV boxes. It said these boxes often falsely bear the FCC logo to give them the appearance of legitimacy, but are actually used to perpetuate “intellectual property theft and consumer fraud,” the FCC said in letters to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and eBay CEO Devin Wenig. Why Streaming Piracy is Growing There’s a reason Kodi devices are so popular, and it’s not just because everyone is being cheap about paying for access to content. For starters, there’s a lack of consequence for consumers who do illegally stream media – it’s not like back in the day when the RIAA was suing individuals for pirating music. While there has been some activity – Comcast several years ago issued copyright infringement notices to Kodi users, for example – you can today basically get away with illegal streaming. The copyright holders are currently focused on cutting off piracy at the source – box makers and the platforms that enable their sale – not at the individual level. The rise of cord cutting has also contributed to the issue by creating a highly fragmented streaming ecosystem. Shows that used to be available under a single (if pricey) cable or satellite TV subscription, are now spread out across services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Sling TV, HBO NOW, and others used by cord cutters. Customers are clearly willing to pay for some of these services (largely, Netflix and maybe one or two others), but most can’t afford a subscription for each one. And they definitely don’t want to when all they’re after is access to a single show from a network. That’s another reason they then turn to piracy. Finally, there is the fact that film distributors have forever withheld their movies from streaming services for months, creating a demand for illegal downloads and streams. Though the release window has shrunk some in more recent years, the studios haven’t yet fully bought into the idea of much smaller windows to cater to the audience who will never go to the theater to watch their movie. And when this audience is cut out the market, they also turn to piracy. Eventually, the record industry adapted to consumers’ desire for streaming, and services like Spotify and Apple Music emerged. Eventually, streaming services may be able to make piracy less attractive, too. Amazon Channels, could become a key player here if it expands to include more add-ons. Today, it’s the only true a la carte TV service available. And that perhaps – not skinny bundles – is what people really want.

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