If there's anything that the pandemic has highlighted, it's the importance of technology in our daily lives, especially to help us stay connected with others and work collaboratively in an era of social distancing. Although these connectivity solutions have allowed us to adjust to the "new normal," we've become more and more reliant on the technology. Internet access is now as vital as electricity or water, regarded as a fundamental utility that should be universally available.
As we lean heavily on connectivity technologies during this time, we notice that they're often not equitably distributed, and these inequalities create big differences between the digital haves and have-nots. A prime example is primary schools shifting to distance learning; the have-nots suffer a disadvantage from the simple fact that they do not have or cannot afford the necessary technology.
You may be wondering what the pandemic has to do with 5G system-on-chips… Let's connect the dots.
With 5G deployments entering their third year, attention remains fixed on premium mobile devices. Some argue that, with the launch of Apple's 5G-ready iPhone 12 and the scale and reach of the iOS ecosystem, 5G will finally reach the masses. But this is only true for developed markets such as the U.S., Europe, Japan and Korea. At $829, the iPhone will remain out of reach for millions of people around the globe owing to sheer economics and the unequal distribution of wealth. So, the democratization of 5G and reduction in pricing of supporting devices are big themes as we start this new year.
The iPhone 12 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 5G modem that is the most capable 5G solution on the market — at least until the X60 modem hits the market in a matter of weeks. Each iPhone 12 model offers compatibility with a myriad of global networks, although most people will probably never access those foreign networks. This global roaming capability adds complexity and cost to the core electronics of the phone. The price of the iPhone 12 means Apple can easily absorb the added bill of materials costs of providing global 5G connectivity.
However, for the rest of the world, a true mass-market 5G phone will have to be much more localized and affordable. We're talking pricing in the range of $100 to $200, much lower than that of "affordable" designs currently on the market.
This is why Qualcomm's newly announced Snapdragon 480 is a significant move. It sports the first 5G-capable modem built into a Snapdragon 4-series chipset. Qualcomm's approach is based on "trickle-down techonomics" — a term coined by technologist Jon Gosier in 2014. It relies on heavy investment in research and development and commercialization of its premium Snapdragon 8-series chipsets to generate the cash flow to develop and sell lower-cost chipsets.
The company has already announced solutions in the Snapdragon 7 and 6-series, which have allowed manufacturers to bring the cost of handsets down to $300 to $800. Still, these designs are still priced too high for global have-nots to be able to buy. The true democratization of 5G connectivity and the value it creates will rest in feature-limited versions of today's premium 5G chipsets.
Qualcomm isn't the only provider of 5G silicon serving the low end of the market: MediaTek has dominated this territory for many years, and Unisoc likewise offers low-cost 5G chipsets. For its part in democratizing 5G, MediaTek currently offers the Dimensity 700 series chipset. Existing designs based on the Dimensity 700 and 800 cost about $350.
With the Snapdragon 480, Qualcomm now has chipsets that serve as bookends to the widest range of smartphones chipsets in the industry. The eventual release of low-priced smartphones based on this new platform will signal that 5G has been democratized and more digital have-nots around the world can reap the benefits of the technology.
Wayne Lam is senior director, Research, Americas at CCS Insight. He has more than 12 years of experience covering mobile devices, wireless technology and associated supply chains. He joined CCS Insight after starting with smartphone pioneers such as Symbian and progressing to market intelligence firms including iSuppli.
"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.