The 5G Devices Market Landscape
The mobile industry’s move to 5G has begun in earnest with expectations that more than 150 million 5G smartphones will be sold this year, irrespective of the impact caused by the coronavirus outbreak. This growth can only be reached if it is underpinned by the latest requisite technology, namely chipsets and modems from the major suppliers, which will power these flagship devices.
This drive to 5G brings new challenges for vendors and chipset suppliers alike, each trying to win market share and gain leadership in what is to be a new, high-growth market landscape.
The Competitive Landscape of the 5G Chipsets Market and Key Points of Differentiation
Heading and underpinning this technology revolution are companies like Qualcomm, Huawei, Samsung, MediaTek, and UNISOC, all vying to lead this highly dynamic and competitive market and provide a benchmark for the 5G ecosystem. With the advent of 5G thus far being very much biased toward the high end, the fight is on for these companies to dominate the technology and enable the next generation of 5G smartphones. A comparative analysis of the most salient features expected from these new chipsets, to create the best 5G packaged solution and user experience offering an easy path to market for the OEMs, reveals who currently heads this leadership position among chipset suppliers.
Below are the most pertinent points of differentiation that Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) should look at when choosing their key chipset partner(s):
- Ability to Support a Wide Range of Frequencies: 5G is designed to use a wide set of wireless frequencies, from low and mid-bands in sub-6 Gigahertz (GHz), which provide coverage, through to very high frequency Millimeter Wave (mmWave) bands that provide extreme capacity and fast cellular speeds of up to 7.5 Gigabits per Second (Gbps). To claim 5G technology leadership, it is imperative that companies can support both sub-6 GHz and mmWave as part of the technology mix. Currently, this is being led by Qualcomm with the Snapdragon 865 (SD865) Mobile Platform with X55 5G Modem-RF System with support for all key spectrum frequencies, including mmWave.
- Aggregate Multiple Carrier Channels to Offer Maximized Bandwidth to the End User: Not only does this feature provide an Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) user experience, but it also allows mobile operators to optimize the overall spectral efficiency of their networks. Qualcomm’s SD865 Mobile Platform with the X55 purports to support bandwidth aggregation up to 200 Megahertz (MHz) in the sub-6 GHz domain, allowing peak speeds to reach up to 5 Gbps download. Other high-end chipset solutions from Samsung, MediaTek and UniSOC also claim support for up to 200 MHz aggregation, explicitly or implicitly, based on peak speed.
- Enable Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) in the Device: In the spectrum-constrained mobile network environment, DSS will play an integral role and is a significant step to ensuring a seamless global rollout of 5G, allowing operators to deliver both 4G and 5G within the same spectrum. This will provide greater efficiencies and better 5G coverage, with lower latency and faster download speeds. Although Huawei is set to implement DSS in its 5G networks, so far Qualcomm, Unisoc, MediaTek and Samsung claim to offer support for DSS across their latest flagship 5G modems, but this is a requirement that it also needs to enable at the device level.
- Offer an E2E Cellular Connectivity Solution from Modem-to-Antenna: While smartphone OEMs have sourced components from multiple Radio Frequency (RF) suppliers in the past, it can be argued that the complexity of implementing 5G would be suited better to a more integrated approach. This would assist OEMs with accelerating time-to-launch, improving power efficiency and performance, lowering development efforts for building 5G mobile devices, and scaling their offerings across multiple regions with a minimum number of Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). This is particularly true for the challengers among OEMs, who have only a little experience in the RF system design, but big ambitions to scale their offerings beyond their domestic market.
Currently, Qualcomm is uniquely positioned to deliver a fully integrated modem-to-antenna solution in which baseband, RF transceiver, RF front-end, and antenna modules are fully tested and optimized to work together for high-performance 5G mobile devices in sleek form factors. In comparison, HiSilicon still relies on suppliers, such as Qorvo and Skyworks, to build its Radio Frequency Front-Ends (RFFEs), which will mean components related to its 5G solution may not be as tightly integrated. However, Huawei will undoubtedly be looking to beef up its RFFE design solution in the near future, especially if it wants to sell chipsets to third parties and create a more complete solution to enhance the 5G experience.
- First to Provide Market Innovation that Will Mature across Several Product Launch Cycles: Do not underestimate the relative experience gained from creating upgrades for next-generation modems and platforms, which is the culmination of years of Research and Development (R&D) and engineering work. The fact that Qualcomm launched the first 5G modem, the X50, in 2018, 2 years ahead of its competitors, means it has managed to speed the introduction of 5G while maturing its technology across multiple iterations. This has enabled the company to provide competitive chipsets in terms of compact form factors, power efficiency, and performance that is ahead of its competitors. This deep understanding enables the delivery and commercial availability of an advanced, complete solution offering premium performance, which allows for technology differentiation and predominance in the market.
- Products Tested across Multiple Networks: This is a key attribute that can help enable large-scale device deployments. Qualcomm’s partnerships with multiple infra-vendors and mobile operators around the world means that its technologies are naturally designed with large scale in mind. Conversely, geopolitics are now constraining the deployments of Huawei 5G network equipment, notably in Europe. Therefore, it remains to be seen how HiSilicon 5G chipsets will be able to test across multiple networks and whether HiSilicon will, ultimately, be as successful and have the same advantages that it once enjoyed across a global market.
- Products Optimized for Heterogeneous Industrial Designs and Form Factors from Multiple OEMs: For those currently supplying chipset solutions to the smartphone market, both Samsung’s and Huawei’s chipsets are designed and optimized for their own branded devices. Therefore, both would find it hard to create reference designs that support devices from other vendors using different product designs and component supply channels. On the other hand, Qualcomm’s solutions are widely adopted - the SD865 platform has been used by most phone manufacturers in more than 70 designs - with various screen technologies, form factors, cameras, audio, and other components, and are proven virtually worldwide.
Ultimately, the provision of 5G packaged solutions is about offering trusted products that are commercialized globally and have superior mobile experiences that will enable smartphone vendors’ 5G flagship models in 2020.
So far, the level of market understanding that Qualcomm has built up, which when collated with its other strengths, places it squarely as the 5G leader in mobile chipsets. However, with disruption certain to hit the market, notably through aggressive costings, consolidation, and expected outsourcing strategies from companies like Huawei, MediaTek, and UNISOC, plus it being just a matter of time before Apple launches its own 5G modem all means that Qualcomm may face a tough battle to retain the 5G mobile platform leadership mantle.
ABI Research is a global tech market research and advisory firm. The organization partners with cutting-edge technology vendors and leading brands, some of which may be mentioned in this article.