Qualcomm touts 5G momentum amid battles with Intel, Broadcom

Qualcomm showed off its Snapdragon X50 modem at a recent press event. (Mike Dano/FierceWireless)

SAN DIEGO—Qualcomm said more than a dozen handset makers around the world have selected its Snapdragon X50 5G NR modem to power their forthcoming 5G phones. And company executives touted the news as evidence that Qualcomm commands a 12- to 18-month lead on its competitors in the 5G arena.

“There’s a lot to be said about first mover advantage,” Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon said here during a press event financed by the company. Amon argued that Qualcomm’s extensive R&D efforts in 5G will put it ahead of the company’s competitors because operators will want to make use of the most efficient and effective 5G modems available.

Specifically, Qualcomm listed handset and device manufacturers including Asus, HMD Global, HTC, LG, Oppo, Sharp, Sierra Wireless, Sony Mobile, vivo, Inseego/Novatel Wireless, Xiaomi and ZTE as among its confirmed Snapdragon X50 5G NR modem customers. 

"Qualcomm’s message to its competitors is clear: bringing 5G modems to commercial deployment is not just about implementing the technology in a piece of silicon as much greater requirements are needed," Malik Saadi, VP of strategic technologies for consulting firm ABI Research, in a statement about the news. "This includes ensuring that the modem is compliant with 3GPP standards, works across different network topologies and spectrum bands, is tested across equipment from various infrastructure suppliers and can be realistically integrated with various device designs."

Phones using the modem could hit the market as early as next year.

Interestingly, though, not all of Qualcomm's X50 customers are planning to use the platform for mobile phones exclusively. "The Snapdragon X50 5G NR modem platform will enable NetComm Wireless to support early market adopters seeking to implement a 5G Fixed Wireless solution, an attractive solution for telecommunications operators looking to replace or augment traditional 'fixed line' technologies such as copper or coaxial," said Steve Collins, CTO of NetComm Wireless, in a release.

Notably absent from Qualcomm’s list of X50 customers was Samsung, Apple and Huawei—the world’s three largest smartphone vendors, according to IDC. As ABI's Saadi pointed out, those three companies account for nearly 50% of total smartphone shipments and more than 80% of the premium smartphone segment, "which will represent the main addressable market for 5G, at least in the early stages of deployment," he noted. 

Apple’s absence is particularly noteworthy considering recent reports that Apple is planning to eliminate Qualcomm completely as a silicon supplier for the iPhone as soon as next year. The iPhone vendor is reportedly preparing to replace Qualcomm with Intel. Such a move wouldn’t come as a total surprise considering a heated patent-licensing disagreement sparked by Apple’s $1 billion lawsuit against Qualcomm filed early last year.

As for Qualcomm, the company is likely looking for some forward momentum in the market in light of both its ongoing battles with Apple, as well as Broadcom’s aggressive effort to acquire Qualcomm outright. Indeed, Broadcom earlier this month boosted its bid for Qualcomm to $121 billion—an amount that would make the transaction the biggest tech deal ever. Qualcomm rejected Broadcom’s initial bid and has said it would review Broadcom’s raised offer.

And that’s why Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 is important to the company as Qualcomm works to stamp out a leading position in the nascent—but potentially explosive—market for 5G devices. And though Samsung was not listed among those companies using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50, the company just a week ago announced a licensing agreement with Samsung that Qualcomm said stretches through 2023 and includes 5G technologies.

Further, Qualcomm said its momentum isn’t solely limited to handset makers. The company also announced its Snapdragon X50 5G modem has been selected for testing by operators including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others for transmissions both above and below 6 GHz.

AT&T has promised a "mobile" 5G device as early as this year, though company executives have described it as a "puck" rather than a "phone."

During the company’s media event, Qualcomm executives also offered commentary about what consumers should expect from initial 5G phones. Specifically, the company’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem won’t support LTE connections, so handset makers will need to add a separate LTE modem in order to ensure their phones can connect to LTE networks—which will likely be a necessity globally considering 5G coverage will probably be spotty at best as operators build out their networks.

Moreover, Qualcomm executives said the company’s Snapdragon X50 modem will support the 5G NR standard running in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz millimeter-wave bands, but they wouldn’t specify which spectrum bands below those it would support. The inclusion of these so-called millimeter-wave bands (generally those above 20 GHz) is a first for mobile services and a major component of the 5G standard—both AT&T and Verizon have purchased some 39 GHz and 28 GHz holdings. However, Qualcomm’s reluctance to provide details on other bands supported by the Snapdragon X50 modem could raise concerns among carriers like T-Mobile, which has said it will launch nationwide 5G services on its 600 MHz and other bands starting in 2019.

Qualcomm executives hinted that initial 5G phones may not be as svelte as current LTE phones considering such phones may need bigger batteries initially to conduct both 5G and LTE transmissions (which can be handled simultaneously). That observation dovetails with initial batches of 3G and LTE phones, which were also large compared with devices from previous technology generations.

Nonetheless, Qualcomm executives argued that consumers would want to purchase 5G phones. Qualcomm's Amon explained that 5G smartphones and other devices would offer a range of benefits including improved social experiences, ultra HD video capabilities, reliable healthcare monitoring, support for private networks, and more. "We'd like you to buy a new phone for 5G," he said with a smile.

Article updated Feb. 8 with additional information and commentary.