Breakthroughs in Technology Thrust 5G Smartphones Closer to Commercial Reality

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By Malik Saadi | 3Q 2018 | IN-5208

Qualcomm has created a breakthrough for 5G New Radio (NR) with the announcement of a new batch of Radio Frequency (RF) solutions for both mmWave and sub-6 GHz implementations, designed for smartphones and other mobile devices. In tandem, the solutions will be able to offer 5G coverage in dense urban areas as well as broad 5G NR coverage.

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New 5G Modules from Qualcomm to Accelerate 5G Deployments

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Qualcomm has created a breakthrough for 5G New Radio (NR) with the announcement of a new batch of Radio Frequency (RF) solutions for both mmWave and sub-6 GHz implementations, designed for smartphones and other mobile devices. In tandem, the solutions will be able to offer 5G coverage in dense urban areas as well as broad 5G NR coverage.

Why Resolving the mmWave Module Is Such a Big Deal

IMPACT


Of most striking significance from the announcement is the speed with which Qualcomm has managed to get to grips with the intricacies and challenges associated with implementing mmWave into a very compact form factor. While many in the mobile industry considered mmWave highly impractical for mobile devices and networks despite the vast bandwidths available, Qualcomm has managed to overcome these technical obstacles in a relatively short time. It has provided a set of commercial working modules that have benefitted from the miniaturization advantages of mmWave, while offering minimum impact on overall device industrial design.

Qualcomm’s announcement of its QTM052 5G NR mmWave system encapsulates all RF components from the antenna to the radio transceiver. This is the first in the industry because, traditionally, OEMs procure RF components from several vendors and handle the design of the overall RF system themselves. The RF and antenna features of the new mmWave module are vital to mitigate the challenges of the mmWave channel, and the use of up to four modules placed around the device can counter many practical problems, such as signal-blocking from the hand of the user covering an antenna. The main issues of atmospheric and free-space path loss have also been overcome through the support of advanced beam forming, beam steering, and beam tracking technologies, which drastically improve the range and reliability of mmWave signals.

To add to its 5G product portfolio, Qualcomm also announced the QPM56xx, a family of sub-6 GHz RF modules. These modules can be easily integrated with the radio transceiver and could use existing high-band LTE antennas to create a complete RF solution ready to be paired with its Snapdragon X50 5G modem to deliver modem-to-antenna solutions across several spectrum bands.

Although other RF suppliers already offer RF modules, this is the first time a more comprehensive solution has been offered to OEMs, bringing several RF elements including Power Amplifiers (PAs), Low-Noise Amplifiers (LNAs), and switches into a single package. This approach will help OEMs to significantly lessen the complexity of RFFE design for 5G while reducing footprint size and power consumption of the overall RF system. By pairing Qualcomm’s latest RF modules with its Snapdragon X50 5G modem, the company intends to offer OEMs a compact end-to-end 5G solution, enabling them to focus on what they do best—making mobile devices—without worrying about the complexity of the RF system design brought about by 5G, mmWave in particular.

Setting the Standard for 5G Smartphone Design

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As the industry moves to 5G, RF Front-End (RFFE) designs and RF component procurement will become far more complex and cumbersome for OEMs to handle. For this reason, ABI Research considers the RF modules announced by Qualcomm as a milestone for 5G implementation within mobile devices, which could potentially set the standard for RF design in the 5G era.

The availability of such compact solutions as those announced by Qualcomm will no doubt help OEMs accelerate smartphone time-to-market without overly compromising the integrity of the devices’ industrial design, performance, or cost. Indeed, the mmWave module announced by Qualcomm is a turning point for 5G implementation within mobile devices because this could potentially set the standard for plug-and-play RF system design for 5G mmWave.

The announcement is not only a breakthrough for smartphone vendors but also for mobile carriers. It will be an undoubted relief to companies such as AT&T and Verizon in the United States that are betting heavily on mmWave being an integral part of 5G rollouts, initially with fixed wireless deployments, which will then naturally evolve to the mobile broadband use case.

Moreover, the immediate availability of Qualcomm’s modules means that OEMs can set to work creating 5G smartphones, with devices expected to become available as early as 1Q 2019 and mobile hotspots before the end of 2018. By mid-2019, it is expected that a healthy roster of handset makers will have devices in the market, making both 5G mmWave and sub-6 GHz a reality far earlier than most industry observers had anticipated. These are most likely to be the “challenger” smartphone vendors based out of China that have been working closely with Qualcomm, such HMD Global (Nokia), HTC, LG, OnePlus, OPPO, Sony Mobile, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE. The next phase will be for costs to be brought down and for the remaining major smartphone OEMs, most notably Samsung, Apple, and Huawei, to implement their solutions, which will add significantly to the large-scale commercialization of 5G.

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