Author(s): Geoff Blaber
The frenzy of 5G announcements at the moment is exhausting as activity intensifies ahead of network launches. As we've said a number of times recently, many of these announcements are of questionable integrity (see The 5G Playground Squabble). A string of "industry firsts" and even so-called launches of 5G networks well ahead of device hardware runs a very real risk of confusing and disillusioning consumers. The series of frivolous announcements also taints what amounts to extremely impressive industry progress in standardizing 5G New Radio and developing infrastructure and silicon.
So it's important to highlight items of tangible and significant news in 5G development. Qualcomm's announcement of 5G millimetre-wave and sub-6 GHz radio frequency modules is a massive step forward for the industry. The Qualcomm QTM052 millimetre-wave antenna module and QPM56xx sub-6 GHz module families pair with the previously announced Snapdragon X50 5G modem to create a complete connectivity solution for hardware manufacturers. This should mean that smartphones supporting both millimetre wave (26.5 to 29.5 GHz, 27.5 to 28.3 GHz and 37 to 40 GHz bands) and sub-6 GHz frequency bands will be commercially available in the first half of 2019.
To appreciate the importance of this announcement, it's necessary to understand the challenges inherent in millimetre-wave spectrum. The technology operates at frequencies above 24 GHz, compared with between 600 MHz and 5.8 GHz for 4G. Although this provides tremendous capacity and bandwidth compared with sub-6 GHz frequencies, it has far greater propagation challenges. Signals can easily be blocked by buildings, glass, foliage, even a person's hand holding a device. Some within the industry felt the technology wouldn't be feasible for mobile devices, and would be more appropriate for static uses, such as fixed wireless broadband.
Although millimetre-wave connectivity is inherently more suited to dense urban and indoor environments and certainly won't be available ubiquitously, Qualcomm's news is a significant milestone for the industry and proves the capability of technologies such as beam forming and beam steering in order to overcome signal limitations. It delivers the vision of 5G coping with multiple usage scenarios and requirements using a combination of high-, mid- and low-band spectrum.
To achieve its breakthrough, Qualcomm has overcome some significant technical hurdles to address a wide range of device engineering challenges associated with the choice of materials, heat dissipation, design and types of device. It has also done so with a module barely larger than a fingernail. Although working millimetre-wave modules have been demonstrated in the past, they have generally been in tablets and laptops that have more space to house the antennas. The QTM052 is a critical development as it not only means smaller more-compact 5G devices, but up to four millimetre-wave antennas can be integrated into a smartphone to increase the range and reliability of signals.
Qualcomm won't be the only chipset supplier competing in 5G in 2019 and we fully expect Intel, Samsung, HiSilicon and MediaTek to release commercial products in a similar time frame. It remains to be seen how performance compares. There are huge technical challenges in 5G, thanks to the heightened complexity of working with millimetre-wave technology and a huge increase in band combinations.
As with 4G, it is highly likely that one silicon supplier will dominate the first crop of device designs. And although all chip-makers are loudly touting their 5G credentials, we predict a wide performance gap between leaders and followers. Qualcomm's dominance in 4G, coupled with its investments in RF360, a joint venture in radio-frequency front end TDK, puts it in an undeniably strong position as the industry navigates the transition to 5G.