Mobile World Congress is the most important show in the wireless industry every year. This year is no different, with vendors like Qualcomm doing their best to show what this new hyper-connected wireless world will look like. At MWC 2017, the company will make many announcements in the areas of IoT and 5G as well as upgrading its existing line of LTE modems to satisfy the huge demands for data today. After all, MWC is all about mobility and modems are usually among the most announced things at MWC other than the smartphones they are inside of.
Industry’s first 3GPP 5G NR connection
When it comes to 5G, Qualcomm has been focused on supporting the 5G New Radio standard from the get go. It has been talking about 5G NR ever since it started talking about 5G and today it is announcing they have successfully completed the first Sub-6 GHz 5G NR connection between their own hardware. Part of that leadership in 5G NR is also enabling 5G NR in both mmWave and sub-6 GHz and enabling 5G NR technologies within both types of spectrum through its current prototype systems. I expect sub-6 GHz 5G NR technology to eventually make it into production by the time their 5G chips start shipping.
However, as I have stated before, 5G NR isn’t fully complete and has not been fully cemented yet as a standard so we can’t fully claim that anything is fully 5G NR compliant. We will know exactly what is officially in 5G NR once the 3GPP meets in March, almost immediately following MWC 2017 in Barcelona even though we already know what things are very likely to be within the standard already.
At MWC, Qualcomm will be showing off its 5G NR massive MIMO TDD sub-6 GHz demonstration which utilizes the company’s latest prototype system. This demonstration shows off the benefits of technologies like massive MIMO in addition to utilizing all the improvements that come with 5G NR in spectrum that is like existing 4G LTE networks. This demo also gives you an idea of the additional benefits of having sub-6 GHz 5G NR connectivity on top of the 5G NR mmWave technology that has promised the extreme speeds in the multi-gigabit range we have come to expect from 5G.
Non-line-of-sight mobile mmWave demonstration
One very interesting demonstration Qualcomm is showing off at MWC 2017 is its NLOS (non-line-of-sight) operation of mmWave technology between nodes and devices, both outdoors and indoors as well as vehicular mobility of up to 30 mph with seamless handover between nodes.
I believe this is a clear nod to Qualcomm’s rigorous work in mobility and its ability to already have working indoor and outdoor demonstrations that show wall penetration and seamless handover between nodes at moderate speeds.
This is impressive because we have yet to see anyone show any kind of mmWave or 5G demonstrations that involve moving vehicles or dealing with walls, since most 5G demos I have seen have mostly been fixed or line-of-sight or both.
Comprehensive RFFE platform
RF front-ends, or RFFEs, are the components in a wireless connectivity system that generally sit between the antennas of the phone and the transceiver which feeds the modem. RF doesn’t get the respect it deserves, but it will get it with 5G. These components are crucial to enabling the smartphone to obtain the optimal signal strength and allowing for the support of dozens of different bands of cellular frequencies.
Qualcomm has been working for a very long time on delivering gallium arsenide GaAs power amplifier modules in conjunction with TDK to increase the capabilities of their RFFE. This joint venture, called RF360 Holdings, is designed to specifically enable Qualcomm and their partner, TDK, to deliver RF front-end modules and filters for Qualcomm’s own fully integrated systems which include its modems and transceivers. This includes the introduction of the new multimode/multiband PA (Power Amplifier) modules (QPA) as well as new front-end modules (FeEMiD) and diversity receiver modules (DRX).
Qualcomm is also introducing new antenna tuning chips to accompany the new Snapdragon 835 SoC, the QAT355x series which include an impedance tuner, aperture tuner and a diversity switch which allow for better antenna tuning through a closed loop. This capability enabled by these tuning chips is more commonly known by consumers as Qualcomm “TruSignal” and represents the next generation of better signal and wireless performance.
These new amplifiers and other components of the whole wireless system ultimately allow Qualcomm to deliver a complete modem to antenna solution that increases integration, reduces design complexity and is designed to address the increased complexity of the RF environment with 4G and 5G. All of this is designed to allow Qualcomm to deliver what it believes to be a superior wireless solution compared to their competitors which may lack certain components and integration.
Snapdragon X20 1.2Gbps LTE modem, beyond X16 “Gigabit-Class”
Qualcomm has been leading the way with Gigabit 4G LTE, with the Snapdragon X16 LTE modem which is now inside the Snapdragon 835 by enabling 3xCA (3 carrier aggregation) or 4x CA with 256 QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) and 4x4 MIMO (multi-input, multi-output). However, there are already devices out there that are capable of high-performance LTE of up to 600 Mbps with the X12 modem inside of the Snapdragon 820. Those devices, however, are not quite capable of 1 Gbps Gigabit LTE like the Netgear Nighthawk M1 which was recently launched on Telstra as well as three other devices in Japan all featuring the Snapdragon X16 modem.
Qualcomm is not standing still when it comes to Gigabit LTE, so today they are announcing the Snapdragon X20 LTE modem. This new Gigabit LTE modem is capable of theoretical maximum speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps (Cat 18 DL) with 4x4 MIMO on at least 3 LTE carriers (3x CA) as well as 5 x 20 MHz carrier aggregation. Upload remains unchanged from the X16 modem, remaining at 2 x 20 MHz UL or 150 Mbps. The X20 also has LAA (License Assisted Access) that supports a minimum licensed requirement of 10 MHz and up to 80 MHz on unlicensed. This would theoretically enable operators for less use of licensed spectrum potentially reach Gigabit-class speeds with limited spectrum.
The Snapdragon X20 Gigabit LTE modem also comes with support for the new 3.5 GHz “CBRS” shared spectrum in the US which is designed to offer more available spectrum to aggregate spectrum to reach these faster peak speeds. Finally, the X20 will support dual SIM dual VoLTE (voice over LTE) which makes total sense when you think about how prevalent dual SIM is in Asia and how many carriers are moving towards VoLTE. Qualcomm is also saying that the X20 will be the company’s first discrete modem manufactured on 10nm, this is compared to the X16 which was originally 14nm and then 10nm inside of the 835.
Broadening with IoT
Qualcomm has been broadening its capabilities in IoT to meet the demands of an increasingly connected IoT world. Qualcomm has been the undisputed leader in cellular connectivity for many years, but given the fact that with a new technological shift come new challenges and even potential for share shift. Part of Qualcomm’s strategy to accelerate its growth in IoT has been to acquire one of the companies best known for IoT today, NXP, to the tune of $47 billion. However, that deal still hasn’t closed so the company is addressing IoT right now in fast-growing verticals like automotive and much of that will be addressed with 5G in the future, but still needs 4G today. In fact, the company has over 25 different IoT platforms, but it that doesn’t mean they have shown all the pieces for their success.
In addition to the major modem announcements at MWC, Qualcomm also announced it will be supporting Google’s OS vertical for IoT, Android Things on its Snapdragon 210 processor. This is exciting because it is the only LTE-powered SoC capable of supporting Android Things and it also has a powerful quad-core processor and GPU, which some of the other Android Things processors do not. Currently, the only modules that support Android Things are Intel’s Edison and Joule boards as well as the NXP Pico and Raspberry Pi 3. Because none of them feature 4G LTE connectivity it means that many of these devices have to be tethered to a fixed wireless connection, which makes their portability much less compelling.
It will be fascinating to see how OEMs and developers utilize the Snapdragon 210 and its connectivity for Android Things. We could see LTE-connected devices like video monitors and asset tracking devices that cost significantly less thanks to revenue generated through new services. Or even more simply, we could see affordable LTE-connected speakers and other appliances that couldn’t afford to have an LTE modem in the past. This is also a good thing for Google because it means that Android Things is no longer limited to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity for communications. It allows for more flexibility within Google’s own platform and at the same time creates a bit more variability in the technologies represented within Android Things.
Finally, an IoT chip with unified WiFi, BT, Zigbee and OpenThread
The smart home is a wireless mess as we have at the very least three different competing radio technologies (Bluetooth, WiFi, and Zigbee/Thread) supported in drastically different ways around the home.
Qualcomm is announcing that it will be releasing a new IoT-focused tri-mode dual-core SoC named the QCA402X which will come in two flavors, the QCA4020 and the QCA4024. The QCA4020 supports Bluetooth Low Energy 5, dual-band Wi-Fi and 802.15.4 technologies including ZigBee and OpenThread while the QCA4024 drops Wi-Fi. These are both Qualcomm’s first “15.4” chips which indicate the company’s seriousness towards supporting these smarthome IoT standards. Considering how prevalent these three connectivity standards are in the home, it is the most logical combination of the three most commonly used radios in the home. These chips also come with features from Qualcomm’s recently announced Network IoT Connectivity Platform which includes pre-integrated support for HomeKit and OCF as well as cloud services using AWS IoT SDK or Microsoft Azure SDKs.
This announcement is big for smart homes.
Moving forward and outward
Prior to MWC in Barcelona, Qualcomm is showing how the company is moving forwards in 5G with their implementations of 5G NR and the Snapdragon X20 modem, but also outward with its IoT and RF front-end technologies. I know that this is just a drop in the water of all the things that Qualcomm is announcing regarding 5G NR, Gigabit LTE and IoT, as I expect even more announcements to roll out over the course of MWC. All of this is ignoring the $47 billion elephant in the room called NXP which will very likely expand Qualcomm’s IoT reach beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. But first, they need to close the deal and complete the merging of the two organizations and that will take some time.
While in the process of closing the NXP deal, Qualcomm will need to continue to push forward with 4G and 5G technologies as it has been doing and showing us 5G devices being tested on trial networks as soon as they can. Right now, 5G is anybody’s race, there are multiple races given so many 5G use cases and there’s still a lot to figure out, but Qualcomm seems confident that it has things figured out and it's confident in their current capabilities and demonstrations.
While it’s up for grabs who will be the first to ship 5G wireless, I believe that Qualcomm is well-positioned to enable the first 5G tablets and smartphones. The importance of 4G LTE on mobile implementations of 5G is not lost on me and that’s partially why I believe Qualcomm’s leadership in 4G wireless is crucial to its success in 5G wireless.