Regardless of what part of technology you come from, the entire tech industry has been talking about 5G. 5G will reshape the way we will use mobile devices, deliver self-driving cars and smart cities, and even the way get content delivered to our homes. Some companies talk about it to be part of the conversation, while others lead and set the way. Many wireless companies have been jostling for a position within the upcoming 5G wireless world and Qualcomm has shown incredible leadership in 5G. The company showed significant strength in 3G and even more in 4G and doesn’t look to be letting up any time soon. Because of Qualcomm’s CDMA heritage and 4G expertise, it only seems natural that the company would also want to have a leading place in 5G. This is further exemplified by their exhaustive R&D in 5G as well as industry wide-partnerships with operators, infrastructure vendors and device makers. Qualcomm is looking to extend their leadership in 5G today at the 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong today by announcing the world’s first 5G modem, the Snapdragon X50.
Snapdragon X50 5G Modem (Credit: Qualcomm)
The first 5G modem, Snapdragon X50
To my knowledge, the Snapdragon X50 5G modem is the first and only 5G modem in existence. Qualcomm says the Snapdragon X50 5G modem is capable of download speeds of up to 5 Gbps which is 5x faster than the fastest 4G modem, which also happens to be a Qualcomm modem, the Snapdragon X16. Qualcomm announced productization of the X16 in hotspots and SoC and I wrote about it today right here. The Snapdragon X50 supports 28 GHz mmWave spectrum initially, the very high frequency, short wave length kind of radio communication that has been associated with 5G. This 28 GHz band of spectrum is designed to support both Verizon’s 5GTF and Korea Telecom’s 5G-SIG specifications. That means we will very likely see the Snapdragon X50 in both companies’ deployments of 5G technology which are due in 2018.
To attain speeds of up to 5 Gbps, the X50 must do things like adaptive beam-forming and beam tracking for when the device isn’t in direct line of sight. The Snapdragon X50 does 8X carrier aggregation (CA), combining 8 different 100 MHz blocks of mmWave spectrum. By comparison, the Snapdragon X16 LTE modem can only do 80 MHz of carrier aggregation with 4X CA in 20 MHz blocks.
X50 pairs with next-gen Snapdragon 800 with X16 for 4G and 5G
For the Snapdragon X50 to truly work in the mixed world of 5G and 4G, Qualcomm has paired it with a Snapdragon processor with built-in gigabit-class LTE. Qualcomm’s just announced the upcoming Snapdragon 800 series processor will have an integrated Snapdragon X16 modem in it. By pairing a gigabit-class LTE modem and a gigabit-class 5G modem, Qualcomm can provide a complete solution for anyone looking to deploy a 5G wireless product in 2018. This makes Qualcomm’s solution a multi-mode solution, something that has served the company well since the 3G days. I believe that multi-mode solutions, even if with two modems are going to be crucial for the implementation of 5G and ensuring consistent connectivity because of mmWave’s inherent weaknesses. Keeping in mind that 5G will not only encompass mmWave technology, but right now that is the primary type of spectrum being utilized. Down the road we could see 5G in sub 6GHz bands of spectrum and not just the mmWave spectrum we are seeing today.
Multi-mode 4G and 5G supported (Credit: Qualcomm)
The 5G road ahead
The reality is that while this is being called a 5G modem, there is still a lot that needs to be done for this to officially be a 5G modem. There still isn’t a set global standard for 5G modems, but this modem will very likely adhere to all the standards that are expected to pass in 2018 and launch in 2019 and 2020. Qualcomm is heavily especially investing to in accelerating 5G NR with trials and early deployments around 2018 and 2019 ahead of the expected 2020 date. Qualcomm isn’t alone in 5G development; they do have competition from Intel and Samsung Electronics who are actively developing their own 5G technologies. Most other players in the 5G space like Ericsson, Huawei Technologies, Nokia and Samsung are all looking to build infrastructure rather than modems.
The 5G landscape is finally starting to become more real with actual chips, which Qualcomm says they’ll be sampling in 2H 2017 with commercial devices in 1H 2018. Qualcomm hasn’t said what process node they are using to manufacture this 5G chip, but I suspect it’s going to be manufactured on one of TSMC’s leading nodes like 10nm or 7nm. The Snapdragon X50 finally delivers us one of the missing pieces of enabling 5G connectivity and offers an insight into what kind of performance we can start to expect. Once again, Qualcomm demonstrates its wireless leadership, this time with the world’s first 5G modem. You can find more info here and Qualcomm also produced a video.