Qualcomm boasts world’s first announced 5G data connection on 5G modem chipset for mobiles

qualcomm x50 (qualcomm)
The Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem. (Qualcomm)

Qualcomm is taking some of the lessons learned in its early days of CDMA and applying the same sort of challenge-the-skeptics attitude to 5G.

The company’s Qualcomm Technologies subsidiary achieved a 5G data connection on a 5G modem chipset for mobile devices—with an emphasis on “mobile.” Similar to the days when cynics challenged whether Qualcomm’s CDMA invention would work, the company is proving that mobility can be accomplished at millimeter-wave frequencies, something a lot of people said wouldn’t happen soon, if at all.  

“We believe this is the world’s first 5G data connection over a 5G mobile chipset made for mobile devices,” said Sherif Hanna, product management/product marketing for mobile at Qualcomm, which also created millimeter-wave antenna modules to go along with it.

Millimeter wave behaves differently than the spectrum that traditionally is used in wireless, and the antenna elements Qualcomm used in the demo were more advanced, with Massive MIMO and multiple antenna elements.

The module is about the size of a nickel, making it viable for a smartphone, which likely will have more than one module in them. “This is just our first iteration,” Hanna told FierceWirelessTech. It’s quite likely engineers will make adjustments based on what they learn and over time make it even smaller.  

Plenty of engineers and others have suggested that millimeter wave is mostly geared for fixed wireless rather than the fully mobile applications that have come to define the mobile space. “At Qualcomm, it is our belief that millimeter wave is viable for smartphones. It’s viable for mobile networks. It’s not just for fixed wireless,” he said. “In our opinion, this is almost like a second CDMA moment for us,” where a lot of people didn’t believe CDMA was viable at all back in the '90s and Qualcomm not only proved it was viable but it also turned out to be pretty popular.

The company also announced it is offering a 5G smartphone reference design that allows OEMs to test how a prototype 5G phone works in portrait or landscape mode, for example, and other behaviors like switching from LTE to 5G.

The first version of the 5G spec is nearing completion, with the industry intent on meeting its self-imposed December deadline. “We’re on track for real 5G smartphones and networks in the first half of 2019,” Hanna said.  

Qualcomm’s 5G demonstration used a Snapdragon X50 5G modem chipset and took place in Qualcomm Technologies’ laboratories in San Diego. It achieved gigabit download speeds using several 100 MHz 5G carriers and demonstrated a data connection at 28 GHz. The demo also used the SDR050 mmWave RF transceiver integrated circuit and Keysight Technologies’ new 5G Protocol R&D Toolset and UXM 5G Wireless Test Platform.

Qualcomm points out that it was the first company to announce a 5G modem chipset last year, and its ability to progress from that stage to fully functional silicon in the space of 12 months is nothing to sneeze at. Qualcomm has contributed to the 5G standards process from the get-go, making key contributions, including foundational research and sub-6 GHz and mmWave 5G NR prototype systems.

Although the first data call using 5G was in a controlled lab test environment, it is one of the first major steps towards the real deployment of 5G networks, according to Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research.

“It is still very early days for 5G in millimeter wave frequencies and many issues need to be resolved before early networks are switched on and compatible devices are in the hands of consumers,” Mavrakis said in a statement. “However, the Qualcomm announcement will likely create a new wave of innovation in the chipset and device ecosystem, which will eventually feed into commercial devices. Qualcomm’s reference design is perhaps a more important announcement in that aspect; using this design, vendors can now create compatible devices and develop products for 5G.”

Qualcomm’s best bet is to accelerate the commercial deployment of 5G, so that it can monetize its patent portfolio and sell more chips. “Today’s news of a 5G NR modem in mmWave comes 3 months before the official 3GPP standard is frozen, however it is possible that Qualcomm’s announcement will skew the market and the standards discussions in its favor. It certainly has the potential to kick start the next round of discussions that will lead to commercial 5G devices,” Mavrakis said.

Qualcomm, which is hosting its annual 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong this week, also announced a new mobile platform, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 636, designed to provide improvements to device performance, enhanced gaming and display technology support compared to the Snapdragon 630 Mobile Platform. The 636 features Qualcomm Kryo 260 CPU, which promises a 40% increase in device performance over the Snapdragon 630. The Snapdragon 636 also comes with support for modern ultrawide FHD+ displays and Assertive Display, which optimizes the visibility of the display in all lighting conditions.

Qualcomm Technologies also announced new additions to the RF Front-End portfolio that are designed to provide comprehensive support for devices operating in the 600 MHz spectrum. The new additions are designed to allow OEMs to rapidly build mobile devices that support new operator deployments of Band 61, a 600 MHz low-frequency band.

T-Mobile is currently deploying network capabilities, and Qualcomm Snapdragon Mobile Platform-based smartphones supporting 600 MHz Band 71 are commercially available.

Editor's note: Article updated Oct. 17 with comment from ABI Research.