Qualcomm just announced its first portable 5G modem. That’s amazing, because there’s no official 5G radio standard yet. But with Verizon and Korea Telecom plugging ahead on “5G” rollouts for 2017, Qualcomm decided it needed to jump on the bandwagon with the new X50.
“It’s going to support these early 5G deployments, operating in the 28GHz millimeter wave spectrum, a brand new type of spectrum that has never been used for cellular before. It will have download speeds up to 5 gigabits per second,” said Sherif Hanna, technical marketing manager at Qualcomm.
The X50 will be designed primarily for handheld and mobile devices, although it could also be used for home broadband.
Hanna admits that calling this “5G” is carrier-marketing-driven. The official global 5G standard, called 5G NR, probably won’t be set until 2018. That hasn’t stopped Verizon or KT from rolling ahead, and it didn’t stop Ericsson from announcing that it had the “world’s first 5G radio,” the AIR 6468, at the end of August.
The worst-case scenario is that early adopters like Verizon go in one direction and post-2017 players go in another direction, but Hanna said Qualcomm hopes that doesn’t happen. The better option would be for carriers to converge on 5G NR when it’s set, much like how “Pre-N” Wi-Fi equipment didn’t stick around once true 802.11n routers went on sale.
“5G NR is the long-term solution, and it’s the way to go,” he said.
The X50 will pair up with another new product, the X16 gigabit-class LTE modem. The X16, which was previewed in February, is coming to a Netgear hotspot in Australia, where Telstra will achieve gigabit speeds by combining three new LTE technologies: 3-by-20MHz carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM. No US carrier currently has all three of those technologies together.
“Our expectation is that there will be several premium-tier mobile devices in 2017 which do have gigabit capability,” Hanna said.
Gigabit LTE needs to supplement 5G because 5G technologies, initially, will have poor coverage and short range. Carriers that want to provide a consistent mobile experience would much rather have their multi-gigabit 5G step down to a gigabit rather than to 50 megabits or so.
So what are carriers going to do in places like the US, where nobody has quite enough spectrum for gigabit LTE yet? The X16 also supports LTE-U and LAA, both of which are ways to grab unlicensed Wi-Fi channels and aggregate them to improve LTE speeds. Verizon and T-Mobile have said they’re deploying LTE-U, and AT&T is looking at LAA. (Sprint has enough spectrum to do gigabit; it’s just missing the other two technologies.)
Only 16 percent of mobile-phone operators can support gigabit LTE on their licensed spectrum, but that jumps to 64 percent if you include LTE-U and LAA technologies, Hanna said.
It’ll be a while before you see Qualcomm’s modem in any 5G phablets, though. The X50 is destined for devices in the first half of 2018, Hanna said.
Coming Sooner: New Processors
Much sooner than the X50 modem, we’re going to see new processors from Qualcomm. The Snapdragon 653, 626, and 427 all bump up the performance and features in Qualcomm’s midrange processors, while remaining compatible enough with earlier generations to make it easy for OEMs to upgrade. That means they’ll come relatively quickly to new phones.
The new processors bump up to X9 modems, which offer faster uplink than the previous generation; 2×20 carrier aggregation, which US carriers use; and TruSignal, which improves phone signal strength. They all support dual rear cameras for AR or depth perception. They’re also all a little bit faster, CPU-wise, than the previous generations, although you might not notice. They’ll all probably appear in new phones by the time CES rolls around at the beginning of next year.