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Qualcomm unveils its first 5G modem: 5Gbps peak downloads, beam forming, and 800MHz of spectrum

When we talk about Qualcomm, we typically discuss its SoCs, CPU performance, and general market position in the Android ecosystem. Qualcomm’s modem division, however, is absolutely vital to its overall success, even if discussions of that technology tend to fly under the radar. Between its extensive 4G LTE patent portfolio and dominant position in the Android market, a great deal of cellular revenue flows through Qualcomm’s coffers — and establishing a leadership position on 5G is key to keeping it that way.

This need to keep focused on the next generation of hardware is why Qualcomm just announced its X50 5G modem. It’s designed to work with the 28GHz spectrum, even though the 5G standard is nowhere near defined. Some of you may recall the kerfuffle and confusion around 4G, when various device manufacturers rolled out hardware with varying degrees of support for beyond-3G networks. The eventual hashing out allowed for faster-than 3G networks to be branded as 4G, while higher-end devices use the phrase “LTE” — but even this hides some of the ways the standard has continued to evolve. Today, devices support LTE-A (LTE-Advanced) or LTE, while older hardware may only support 4G. With Qualcomm staking a claim to 5G technology this early, we’re probably in for a bumpy ride once again.

One of the challenges facing 5G, no matter which spectrum is ultimately adopted, is the use of high frequency bands. The chart below shows how higher frequency signals attenuate when they pass through certain types of obstacles. As the frequency rises, so does the signal loss over distance. 28GHz may avoid some of the problems with the 60GHz band, which can literally be attenuated by the presence of water molecules in the air, but it’s still a significant challenge.


It’s a challenge that Qualcomm has some ideas to solve. As the infographic below illustrates, Qualcomm wants to fight this problem through the use of intelligent beamforming, seamless fallback to 4G networks in 5G signal can’t be established, and aggregating up to 800MHz of spectrum for improving maximum bandwidth. This new 28GHz capability is being marketed as mmWave (that’s short for millimeter-wave), and Qualcomm clearly believes it can provide substantially improved performance, the aforementioned seamless fallback, and intelligent signal routing — all invisibly happening in the background, much the same way that cell phones today can switch between networks.

Various companies contributing to the standardization of 5G have made arguments for building different types of networks — from ubiquitous deployments that emphasize connecting large numbers of people at a minimum cost per bit, to ultra-fast networks that could transmit up to 10Gb/s but might not be offered outside major cities and key distribution points. These points are still to be settled, but Qualcomm is staking an early claim. The Snapdragon X50 will support up to 5Gb/s of download bandwidth and is designed to serve multiple devices connecting over gigabit LTE. Sampling is expected in the second half of 2017, with commercial availability in the first half of 2018.

Now read: What is LTE?

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