Note: Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Anshel Sag contributed significantly to this article.
Two weeks ago, we kicked off our 5G leadership series here, starting with 5G technology innovations and standards. As we continue the series, we wanted to move on to 5G chipsets, which we define as chipsets that go into 5G consumer mobile devices versus, let’s say, IoT or IIoT devices. There is also another aspect of 5G that could be considered “chipsets,” which go into 5G infrastructure, but we will cover those in the infrastructure portion of this series, which will come later since it is many of the same players.
When it comes to 5G mobile chipsets, the market has become considerably more consolidated since the beginning of the 4G days with many players exiting the market or selling off their divisions due to high R&D costs and low returns. Lots of claims of leadership in 5G mobile chipsets have been made in the past, but we define leadership in the space as one that is first and foremost defined by commercial availability and chipset capabilities. There have been many players in the space that have announced chipsets months in advance to only deliver those chipsets later, commercially, than their competitors.
As mentioned earlier, while there are few players in the mobile chipset space, it is still a highly dynamic and competitive market with some building modems, some building RF-Front-end components, and some players in the space doing both to better resolve the increasing complexity of cellular networks and tighten integration and improve time to market.
Much of the industry is split between those that can do mmWave and those that cannot. This will be a key variable to consider as mmWave is considerably more difficult to deliver, and very few players can do mmWave commercially. However, the benefits to capacity and bandwidth delivered by mmWave will eventually make it an inevitability everywhere that dense deployments are needed.
The biggest market for 5G modems right now is in Sub-6GHz for a few reasons: many countries have yet to free up mmWave spectrum; mmWave is harder to do in terms of RF and device design; and lastly, mmWave doesn’t cover as wide of an area due to the higher frequencies. In the modem space, we have players that include the following companies with announced 5G modems. I will note that the US has been the only region able to deploy both mmWave and Sub6, for now.
Huawei Technologies (HiSilicon)
Huawei’s 5G modem portfolio is branded “Balong.” The company refers to the Balong “platform,” which it says includes both modem and RF ICs. It is unclear as to Huawei’s complete RFFE solution. However, the modems themselves are also called “Balong,” and the company has announced that its Balong 5000 series modem will be shipping commercially this year in devices. Clear as mud at this point.
Huawei says the Balong 5000 is a 7nm, multi-mode 5G modem with support for both standalone and non-standalone networks. The first announced product to carry it was originally the Mate X foldable device which the company says is expected to be available sometime this summer. However, Huawei later announced a Mate 20X 5G which is a version of last year’s Mate 20 Pro paired with a Balong 5000 modem. The Balong 5000 is currently not yet commercially available in any devices, as the Huawei Mate 20X 5G has been pulled by all 5G operators that recently launched networks in Europe. We checked but couldn’t find a single operator still carrying Huawei’s 5G devices, that originally announced its intention to offer them. Huawei claims to also be a leader in 5G mmWave, but none of its devices shown thus far appear to be supporting mmWave, and the company has sent out mixed messages regarding mmWave support.
At MWC, the company glossed over mmWave in its presentation of 5G support for the Mate X, but did claim mmWave speeds; upon requesting further information, we were informed that mmWave is supported by the Balong 5000, but requires implementation by the devices group, which is likely to be in the 2H of 2019. Huawei’s commercial support for mmWave appears to be predicated on the Huawei device group rather than HiSilicon’s modem’s capabilities. However, the company has yet to show a working mmWave prototype of the MateX, or any device, and its website for the Mate X does not state support for any mmWave bands.
Since Huawei isn’t in the business of building their own RF-front-end components, they must source components from suppliers like Qorvo and Skyworks to build their RF-front-ends. This means that there might not be as tight of an integration of components compared to a mostly in-house solution.
MediaTek has traditionally been more of a lower-priced follower-challenger than a leader in cellular modems. However, it did announce around the same time as Intel and Huawei, that it would have a mobile-ready 5G modem.
MediaTek’s 5G modem, called the Helio M70, is the company’s first 5G modem, which it claims is a 5G multi-mode modem built on TSMC’s 7nm process and supports both standalone and non-standalone networks. Like Qualcomm and Huawei, it supports the 5G NR spec's EN-DC feature, which enables 4G and 5G dual connectivity (and aggregating across both networks) to attain even higher speeds. The catch with MediaTek’s 5G modem is that it isn’t claiming mmWave support, even though that might be a possibility down the road with future modems. Without an appropriate mmWave front-end partner, there isn’t much of a chance for MediaTek to support mmWave. The company believes that the lack of mmWave support is okay because its customers are using this modem to ship devices predominantly to Sub-6GHz operators. Its claimed Sub-6GHz speeds are about on par with what are expected to be the peak speeds of first-generation 5G modems. Similar to Huawei, MediaTek also doesn’t produce its own RF-front-end components so it is dependent on partners to integrate their modems into OEM designs.
The company also announced that it would be integrating the M70 modem into its upcoming 7nm SoC with ARM’s latest Cortex-A77 and Mali-G77 cores in early 2020. MediaTek says that the M70 has been available since December of last year, but it expects to ship in the second half of 2019, which should mean sometime in the next two quarters.
Intel is a curious case because the company had been fighting hard to compete with the rest of the industry, as a relatively new re-entrant to cellular in 4G after its acquisition of Infineon’s modem business. Intel has had a difficult history with mobility and smartphones in general and was having a hard time finding any customers for its 4G modems until it managed to capture Apple as a customer.
Intel originally announced that its first commercial 5G modem would be the XMM 8060, following its Gold Ridge prototype modem. However, in late 2018 Intel decided that the XMM 8060 would no longer ship as a commercial modem but would instead be used as a development platform. That decision was paired with the announcement of the XMM 8160, which is the company’s latest 5G modem, capable of both Sub-6GHz and mmWave connectivity and both SA and NSA networks. The XMM 8160 is supposed to be built using Intel’s 10nm process node and was supposed to ship in the second half of 2019, with availability in devices in 2020.
More recently, at MWC 2019, the company was still showing demos of its 5G modem capabilities using an emulation box designed to simulate the modem’s capabilities for testing and qualification until an ASIC was available. However, Intel did announce that it finally had its own mmWave RF IC for building a few of the analog support chips for the mmWave front-end, with a late 2020 or early 2021 target.
Following MWC, the company announced that it would no longer pursue a 5G smartphone modem business after its lead customer, Apple, signed an agreement with competitor Qualcomm to supply it with 5G modems and IP for six years. This has put all of Intel’s efforts in 5G modems into question as to its development in 5G PCs, and automotive was leveraged by most of the 5G smartphone work.
The company says it is currently evaluating the future of its entire 5G modem business, but this business is one of scale, and to remain in it, would need to justify volumes across the PC plus IoT industry. The only other thing that could be a possibility would be to integrate 5G into more future PCs and IoT, but that is still probably a year away or longer for Intel and seems hard to justify the future R&D. At this point, Intel’s 5G modem business is what I would consider being in limbo as the status is unknown, but it does technically have a product.
Qualcomm’s (integrated and discrete) modem business, is at the core of what the company is and has been, with everything else being complementary to its modem technology. Qualcomm has been making modems since CDMA, and it effectively created that standard, so it has a long history with cellular communications and has been pivotal in developing the 3GPP 5G standard. As such, it’s no surprise that Qualcomm not only announced the first 5G modem, its Snapdragon X50 chip but also already shipped the first 5G modems in commercial devices as well.
The X50 is not a multi-mode 5G chip, so it must be paired with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 4G SoC platform and was primarily designed for early NSA and Sub-6GHz or mmWave 5G network deployments. As such, this modem didn’t have support for the same features that the second-generation Snapdragon X55 has, which includes SA and NSA network support for mmWave and Sub-6GHz frequencies.
Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 adds support for 4G/5G spectrum sharing addition to both types of spectrum. The Snapdragon X55 also adds FDD and SA 5G modes in addition to NSA and TDD which were supported in the X50. In the X55, Qualcomm also doubled the supported bandwidth in Sub-6GHz to 200 MHz from 100 MHz, which allows for much faster peak speeds. Qualcomm claims a peak speed of 7 Gbps down and 3 Gbps up with the X55. Peak speeds are a nice number to claim, as others have as well, but ultimately device performance is what matters the most, which is generally significantly lower. However, it is worth mentioning that it was recently reported that a device with Qualcomm’s first-generation X50 modem did achieve 2 Gbps download speeds in a real network environment and Qualcomm demonstrated 4.5+ Gbps at MWC. I wrote about that here. The Snapdragon X55 modem is already shipping to customers and is expected in devices by the end of the year.
Finally, on the modem side, Qualcomm also pre-announced that the company would be integrating a 5G modem into an SoC in early 2020, which is around the same timeframe as MediaTek claimed.
In addition to having launched two generations of 5G modems, Qualcomm has also launched two generations of 5G mmWave RF front-end modules. The second generation of these modules, the QTM525, is so small that it could be integrated into virtually any kind of device, which further helps to improve the adoption of mmWave 5G, especially when you think about signal blocking. It seems that most 5G mmWave solutions will require at least two of these mmWave 5G modules, so the smaller they are, the better chances are that the device designers will be able to integrate these easily into the designs of smartphones and tablets. The new QTM525 also adds support for more bands of mmWave including 24 GHz to 27 GHz, which is in addition to the already supported 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands.
Qualcomm also makes RF-front-end PA and diversity modules for 5G, which are designed to address 5G and 4G connectivity in the Sub-6GHz bands for both low-band and mid-band spectrum. Qualcomm is pairing its PA modules with its QET6100 envelope tracker to help reduce power consumption and improve upload performance in 5G. With the transition from 4G to 5G, most RF components and ET have to be upgraded or improved upon, which is why new diversity modules must be created for Sub-6GHz 5G as well.
Samsung has been in the modem business for quite some time, especially since it has been building its modems into Samsung phones for a long time. Like Huawei, Samsung’s modems are built in-house and are only used in its handsets. Also, like Huawei, Samsung has a considerable network infrastructure business, so it is also involved in 5G in more than one way.
We’ll get into its infrastructure business in another installment of this series, but in this one, we’ll focus on Samsung’s Exynos Modem 5100. Exynos is the brand for Samsung’s in-house SoCs, and its modems also bear the same branding, similarly to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon branding. Like Qualcomm’s, Samsung’s modem is both Sub-6GHz capable as well as mmWave, and supports LTE as well as 5G; it is paired with Samsung’s own RF IC for mmWave. Exynos 5100 refers to the entire platform, which includes the modem, RF, ET (envelop tracking) and power management IC. Samsung is building the Exynos Modem 5100 on a 10nm process node.
Samsung’s Exynos 5100 chipset can be found in certain geographies in its new Galaxy S10 5G. However, it is worth noting that not all versions of the Galaxy S10 5G will are shipping with Samsung’s Exynos chipset, as those in the US are shipping with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip and mmWave modules. This is because Samsung usually ships Qualcomm chips in certain markets and Samsung chips in others.
Unisoc is one of the newest players in the 5G space, but not in modems. Unisoc was formerly branded Spreadtrum and is the last of the major modem suppliers that offer a 5G modem. Unisoc announced its first 5G modem, the IVY510, along with its 5G technology platform named MAKALU back in late-February at MWC 2019. This modem does not target the leading 7nm process node as others have but instead is built using TSMC’s 12nm process, probably to save cost. The modem itself is multi-mode, supporting 2G to 5G, and Sub-6 GHz bandwidths up to 100 MHz. The IVY510 will support both standalone and non-standalone 5G networks, like other modems out there, but there’s no mention of mmWave in any of their publicly available materials. Because Unisoc is generally a supplier to Chinese white label OEMs, cost is extremely important; supporting mmWave adds cost to a device, and most likely isn’t yet a necessary feature in markets that matter to Unisoc’s OEMs.
Skyworks Solutions Inc
While Skyworks is not a modem supplier, it does supply many smartphone OEMs with RF-front-end solutions for cellular connectivity. The company supplies many of the components that sit between the modem and the network, including filters, amplifiers, and other RF front-end components.
Skyworks has named its line of 5G products Sky5, which includes power amplifiers, filters, and some modules that integrate them. Modules are becoming increasingly important due to the complexity resulting from a large number of 5G bands to be supported for both Sub-6GHz and mmWave. However, SkyWorks’ solutions are only for Sub-6GHz 5G solutions for the foreseeable future, until the company creates an RF IC or module for mmWave. All of the players that have mmWave solutions are delivering the front-end as complete modules, so I suspect that we might see something like that from Skyworks eventually.
Qorvo is in a very similar situation as SkyWorks; in fact, the company is Skyworks’ biggest competitor, and the two companies collectively make up a significant chunk of the world’s RF-Front-end chipsets and components. Qorvo does not make modems either, nor does it manufacture handsets like some others mentioned, but it does help its OEM partners to integrate its components in a way that optimizes radio performance. Also, like SkyWorks, most of Qorvo’s mobile 5G front-end solutions are designed for Sub-6GHz 5G smartphones and other devices.
Qorvo does, however, have some mmWave radio solutions for infrastructure, but that doesn’t appear to influence its mobile division. From my experience, companies that are the furthest ahead in mmWave were already experimenting with it when they built 60 GHz Wi-Fi solutions and worked through some of the challenges with mmWave then.
So, who’s the leader in mobile 5G chipsets in the end?
This is an easy call. If you look at which company has the most products out in the market and the one with the most complete 5G mobile solutions, it’s pretty much no contest.
Qualcomm has two generations of 5G modems shipping to customers and already has devices with their first-generation in the market. We’ll cover 5G devices in more depth in the next phase of this leadership series, but Qualcomm is currently the first one to ship a 5G modem and is already shipping their second generation of modems to customers. It also has both Sub-6GHz and mmWave commercially, which shows leadership due to solving the very difficult problems of mmWave. It also has numerous 5G front-end products in addition to its 5G modems, which collectively gives it the right to claim undisputed 5G leadership in mobile chipsets.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.