Qualcomm Introduces its First Multimode 5G Modem

Feb. 21, 2019
Qualcomm Introduces its First Multimode 5G Modem

Qualcomm, the largest supplier of smartphone chips, introduced its second-generation modem for tapping into 5G networks, which are projected to have speeds 10 to 100 times faster than current LTE networks. The company said the modem is designed to be faster, smaller, more power efficient and able to handle a broad range of frequency bands. The announcement came on Tuesday ahead of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

The Snapdragon X55 is manufactured on the 7-nanometer node, while the first generation of the modem, the X50, is based on 10-nanometer technology. Qualcomm's X55 modem stands out for integrating all the technology for tapping into 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G networks on the same flake of silicon. Even though customers are building the X50 modem into smartphones due out before the end of the year, the first-generation chip can only handle 5G.

Because the X50 modem is limited to 5G technology, the chip needs to be combined with the modem inside Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 processor to access 2G, 3G and 4G networks. Conversely, the multimode X55 modem consumes less power, takes up less board space and costs less to integrate into devices, according to Qualcomm. Curbing costs is critical because the first 5G smartphones could end up being pricier than 4G models.

The second generation modem is also faster than the X50, which was introduced when the 5G standard was still under development in 2016. The chip delivers peak download speeds of 7 Gbps using 5G networks, or 40 percent faster than the X50, which downloads data as fast as 5 Gbps. The maximum upload speed is 3 Gbps. Using 4G networks, the chip is capable of 2.5-Gbps downloads, or 25 percent faster than Qualcomm's X24 LTE modem. 

The X55 modem can support both non-standalone and standalone 5G networks, which operate in sub-6 GHz frequency bands—the same used by LTE—and millimeter wave frequencies that have greater network capacity. The chip covers "virtually any 5G network or region in the world," according to Qualcomm. The product also has a spectrum-sharing mode that allows 4G and 5G services to run on the same radio frequencies at the same time.

Qualcomm is betting on the speed of 5G networks to drum up slowing smartphone sales. The company's growth has slumped at a time when it remains under scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly holding a monopoly in the modem business. The 33-year-old company is also fighting Apple over how it licenses standard essential wireless patents and facing mounting competition from Intel, Mediatek, and some customers.

Last year, Intel said that its latest multimode 5G modem could support maximum speeds of 6 Gbps. The Silicon Valley company said the XMM8160 would be used in smartphones by the first half of 2020. Last year, Apple forced Qualcomm out of its flagship smartphones in favor of Intel, which now makes the modem used in every iPhone. Before losing half its orders to Intel in 2017, Qualcomm was the exclusive supplier of modems used in the iPhone.

Mediatek, which typically targets lower end smartphones than Qualcomm, announced its M70 cellular modem last year with 5-Gbps download speeds. The chip should start shipping the second half of 2019, the company said. Mediatek, Intel and Qualcomm's products are all discrete modems, meaning they are not actually built into the application processor. Mediatek and Qualcomm can only currently build 4G modems directly into SoCs.

Qualcomm is also facing fresh competition from potential customers. Huawei's HiSilicon unit announced its first 5G multimode modem, the Balong 5000, based on 7-nanometers last month. Samsung's 10-nanometer Exynos 5100 cellular modem is designed for Samsung devices sold in regions other than the United States. Samsung partnered with Qualcomm last year to release a phone powered by the X50 modem targeting consumers in the U.S.

Wrestling with Qualcomm in courts around the world, Apple is hiring radio frequency engineers to create a custom modem for future iPhones, taking Intel out of the equation. Nearly two years ago, Apple poached the engineering executive that had been leading Qualcomm's modem chip development, Esin Terzioglu. The plan could hurt Qualcomm's chances of reviving its relationship with Apple once their legal conflicts simmer down.

Still, the San Diego, California-based company is winning over early customers. Qualcomm's X55 modem should start shipping inside commercial devices by the end of 2019, the company said. The 5G cellular chip is also targeted at applications such as personal computers, cars, and wireless routers. Last month, the company said that the first-generation X50 would be used in 30 different devices to be released before the end of the year. 

Many of these customers are also using Qualcomm's radio frequency front-end components that surround the main modem. They range from power amplifiers that convert signals from lower to higher power before sending them out through the antenna module, and filters that prevent interference from leaking into the front-end module—more commonly called the RFFE. These parts corral radio signals before feeding them into the modem.

Qualcomm is offering not only the cellular modem but also the antenna and other critical 5G components as an integrated solution, which it claims can cut the power consumption and enhance the performance of 5G devices. The company is trying to undercut other major players in the smartphone market, such as Broadcom, Qorvo, Murata and Skyworks. They sell many of the same components as Qualcomm—just not the modem.

RFFEs could be big business for Qualcomm, which set up a $3-billion joint venture with TDK in 2017 to build filters and other radio frequency parts. The market for front-end module components is forecast to more than double to $35.2 billion by 2023, according to market researcher Yole Développement. At the same time, though, the smartphone market's average annual growth is projected to be 2.5 percent through 2022, according to IDC.

"The need to support multimode operation from 5G to 2G, along with an ever-increasing number of band combinations, brings unprecedented complexity," Christiano Amon, Qualcomm's president, said in a statement. Integrating all these parts in the same smartphone is growing more difficult, and higher performance parts are required to support such a broad range of frequencies. "Discrete modem or RF solutions are no longer sufficient."

Part of the problem is that millimeter waves are blocked by hard surfaces, ranging from trees and concrete to windows and a person's hand. To support more advanced 5G networks, the signals are narrowed into beams and steered around obstacles. And that requires a complicated array of antennas and other parts. Suppliers have struggled to create chips small enough to fit into phones while limiting signal loss and overall power draw.

Qualcomm has started to untangle some of these snags. The company's third-generation antenna module, the QTM525, is designed with a more compact package than the previous QTM052. That enables it to fit into slimmer smartphones. The module adds the ability to access 26 GHz frequencies used in North America, Europe and other regions while keeping the QTM052's support for 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands used in Japan and South Korea.

The company also announced an adaptive antenna tuner that operates from 600 MHz to 6 GHz. The QAT3555 is designed to adjust the antenna's signal strength depending on its surroundings, limiting signal loss. The part's package is also 25 percent thinner than the previous generation's. The new QET6100 envelope tracking device supports 100 MHz bandwidths, which helps to cut on power consumption while boosting coverage and capacity.

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