Did The Industry Deliver On 5G At MWC 2019?

By Anshel Sag - March 19, 2019
Several new 5G modems were showcased at MWC Barcelona.

This year is shaping up to be the year of 5G, with virtually every single company talking up their 5G game in one way or another. Since many of the first 5G smartphones and networks are expected to launch in 2019, MWC Barcelona 2019 was a prime opportunity for everyone to make their announcements and show off what they had been working on. Let’s take a look at what all was announced, and when to expect it.

5G modems and more

One of the fundamental aspects of 5G is the modem. Sometimes this is lost on people, but you need a good 5G modem and RF front-end to make 5G happen. Intel showed off its 8160 modem, announced in December of last year, which is due to ship at the end of this year and will be in devices next year. Qualcomm  followed up its current X50 modem (shipping in phones this quarter) with its new X55 modem, which is shipping now and will be out in devices by the end of the year. In addition to that, Qualcomm also announced it would have a next-generation smartphone SoC with an integrated modem (which it calls a mobile platform) next year. An integrated 5G modem will create significant power and space savings and should enable Qualcomm’s partners to extend their 5G leadership into 2020. Qualcomm spent most of its time and effort at MWC 19 showing off its 5G modem and using it to power real 5G demos with their partners (including OnePlus, LG, OPPO and Sony ).

There’s no question that Qualcomm has 5G modem leadership, but the 5G modem race is no longer a two-horse race. In December, MediaTek also announced its first 5G modem, the M70. At MWC, MediaTek showed off its modem and demonstrated it operationally running 5G with partners’ equipment, including Nokia . The company demonstrated a throughput of 1.1 Gbps over 3.5 GHz on 5G NR, as well as a simulated mmWave demo (since it doesn’t have a mmWave RF front-end for 5G quite yet). Using Anritsu test equipment, the mmWave demo peaked at 4.1 Gbps—comparable to what Qualcomm and Intel demonstrated at last year’s MWC.

Huawei always has a large presence at MWC, and this year was no exception. The company had its 5G modem, the Balong 5000, on display, and had demos somewhere on the floor that I didn't get a chance to see. Huawei made a lot of claims about the Balong 5000 during its launch event—specifically that it was the first with a 7nm multi-mode modem and the first with NSA and SA network architecture. Neither claims are true—Qualcomm’s X55 5G modem announced at MWC already does these things as do Intel's 8160 and MediaTek's M70, which were announced in December. Huawei also claims to be the fastest on mmWave, at 6.5 Gbps, but that doesn’t beat Qualcomm’s claimed 7 Gbps although Huawei reassures me that theirs is faster if we use Qualcomm's technique to measure speeds. I am happy with how quickly Huawei brought a consumer 5G modem to market but making such inaccurate claims don’t help the company’s credibility with those in the know. Ultimately, what really matters is commercial availability and right now only one is shipping in the first batch of 5G phones and that's the Snapdragon X50. Huawei is expected to ship the Balong 5000 in the Mate X sometime mid this year, which would most likely beat the Snapdragon X55 and M70 to commercial availability. However, it remains to be seen what other devices Huawei will ship with the Balong 5000 other than the Mate X, because the Mate X is going to be a relatively low volume chip. Also, it remains to be seen when Huawei will ship an RF front-end module for mmWave and when they will have devices with mmWave, which is the case for many others.

While Intel did not announce any new modems at MWC 2019, it did announce its first mmWave RF Front-end module, which is what will enable Apple  and others to utilize the high frequency and high-bandwidth 5G bands of spectrum. The ability to support both mmWave and Sub-6GHz 5G is key to ensuring full 5G coverage and speeds and bringing a complete 5G device to market. The expectation is that this will be available in late 2020 to early 2021, which lines up with where I believe Intel is currently in its 5G development process. This means we most likely won’t see any PC or smartphone with Intel mmWave 5G inside until 2021. I was impressed by Intel’s live  5G Spiderman VR gaming demo at the show, but I was disappointed to see that it used the same Intel 5G hardware as the company’s first 5G NR demo from last September.

5G phones

5G phones were the primary focus of the show. Qualcomm was at the center of the 5G phone launches, with its partners (including Xiaomi , Sony, OPPO, Vivo and LG) all announcing 5G devices or prototypes for 2019 and beyond. There is still a bit of uncertainty from many manufacturers when it comes to mmWave 5G phones. Samsung without a doubt was the most confident with its Galaxy S10 5G, but those capabilities will vary by geography and by what operators have available. Many European and Asian operators are pushing for sub-6GHz 5G launches before they start talking about mmWave, which is more difficult. Korea and the US, however, appear much more prepared for mmWave, so I expect that’s where we’ll see the bulk of mmWave 5G devices.

Huawei talked up its 5G phone capabilities, taking the opportunity of the show to announce the new Mate X. Still, there was no inclination that it would necessarily be a mmWave device. In fact, on Huawei’s site, it only claims four supported 5G bands—2.5 GHz (same band as Sprint), 3.5, 3.7, and 4.7 GHz. This most likely means that Huawei’s Mate X will have slower downlink speeds than Samsung’s Galaxy Fold (also showcased at the show). Since Samsung is already showing its 5G mmWave version of the Galaxy S10, I expect that the 5G version of the Fold will have it as well (especially considering the price point Samsung is targeting).

5G beyond phones

Now that we know 5G is coming to phones in both Sub-6GHz and mmWave, the next phase is expanding the ecosystem beyond phones. After all, if 5G is going to be as omnipresent and relevant in the future as we’ve been promised, there’s going to have to be more devices than phones on 5G networks. Both Intel and Qualcomm took steps in that direction at MWC 19 in Barcelona, introducing modules that allow their 5G modems to be used in fixed wireless deployments. Intel announced a partnership with Fibocom to enable these M.2 modules and in addition to multiple gateway partners that will be upgradable to 5G.

Qualcomm announced it was creating a 5G reference design for Sub-6GHz and mmWave wireless broadband. This reference design will help operators to more easily deploy fixed wireless 5G for their customers to deliver high-bandwidth connections that utilize their new 5G networks. Companies like Verizon have already deployed fixed wireless, but not using the 5G NR standard; I expect that more operators will use these new platforms for fixed wireless from Qualcomm and Intel.

Due to the bevy of information and announcements at the show, some things slipped under the radar that are worth mentioning.  Qualcomm announced a 5G version of its 8cx SoC for PCs, which means that we should see a 5G PC powered by Qualcomm as early as this year. Qualcomm says it is shipping the 8cx 5G to customers already and will have commercial devices in late 2019. Qualcomm also announced its next generation of 4G and 5G automotive platforms with support for C-V2X and HP-GNSS (high-precision multi-frequency global navigation satellite system). The new Snapdragon Automotive 5G Platform will also support DSDA (dual SIM dual active) which enables simultaneous 4G and 5G connectivity for maximum compatibility with early cellular networks. These new automotive platforms are expected to sample later this year and ship in production vehicles in 2021. This means 2021 will likely be the earliest we’ll see 5G integrated into a car since nobody else has made any announcements in the area.

SES Networks gave us a look at the potential future of 5G deployments in rural areas with its 5G satellite capabilities. I for one am excited to see what its rapid 5G cell prototype could do for rural deployments of 5G. I believe that if governments and operators work together, they can use technologies like satellite-supported 5G to narrow the digital divide between cities and rural areas—which is wider than it likely has ever been. Currently, SES Networks offers Mobile Network as a Service Anywhere, which helps operators and cloud providers broaden their reach in rural areas with significantly less work than before.

Moving forward

The industry delivered quite a bit on what it promised with 5G at MWC 2019 and answered many of the questions we’ve had for the technology moving into the future. However, there are still some unanswered questions—specifically about what carriers’ networks will look like, what they will charge, and when we can expect true 5G networks to drive these devices to their full potential. Many operators talked about 5G deployments and supporting devices, but few of them gave specific details about what kind of performance users can expect on their devices now and into the future. This has always been a concern of mine because the expectations for 5G are already quite high—overpromising and underdelivering won’t go over well. Deploying 5G in sub-6GHz will deliver the coverage users expect and are used to but won’t provide the significant speed improvements over 4G that users are expecting. Conversely, operators launching mmWave first will be able to deliver on the high-performance claims, but coverage will initially be limited, and users will struggle to find service or stay on mmWave service for very long. The ball is now in the operators’ court—it’s their turn to deliver.

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Anshel Sag is Moor Insights & Strategy’s in-house millennial with over 15 years of experience in the IT industry. Anshel has had extensive experience working with consumers and enterprises while interfacing with both B2B and B2C relationships, gaining empathy and understanding of what users really want. Some of his earliest experience goes back as far as his childhood when he started PC gaming at the ripe of old age of 5 while building his first PC at 11 and learning his first programming languages at 13.