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5G in 2018? Qualcomm Announces First Commercial 5G Millimeter Wave Radio

by Chris Taylor | Oct 19, 2016

This week Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon X50 5G Modem, the first commercial radio modem for 5G operating at millimeter wave frequencies.  The X50 platform will ship in sample quantities in the second half of 2017 and should reach the market in shipping devices in 2018.

How can Qualcomm claim it will offer a 5G modem when 5G won’t be defined and standardized for another three to five years?  Qualcomm has called the modem’s ‘air interface “early 5G,” and said it is an effort by Qualcomm and its partners to test 5G in real deployments, with hopes of accelerating the 3GPP standard and adoption of 5GNR (5G New Radio).  The modem will comply with specifications outlined by Verizon’s 5GTF (5G Technology Forum) and KT’s 5G-SIG.  Verizon, KT and several device OEMs and other operators are onboard as part of the effort.

We do not have full specs yet, but Qualcomm has said that the X50 will run at 28 GHz using two RF transceivers, each capable of beamforming using antenna arrays consisting of between 16 and 32 elements for astounding data rates:

  • A user device will support data rates up to 5 gigabits per second.
  • The X50 is intended for mobile devices such as notebook PCs, tablets, and smartphones, not just fixed wireless modems.
  • A device using the X50 will support n x 2 downlink MIMO (n transmitters in the base station and two receivers in the user device), and 2 x m uplink (two transmitters in the user device and m in receivers in the base station).
  • The platform will include a separate 3G/4G radio chipset to accompany the X50 5G chipset, allowing fallback to 3G and 4G when away from 28 GHz-capable base stations.A similar situation occurred with early implementations of UMTS, which used two radios, one for 2G and the other for 3G, in early UMTS mobile devices.

To support 3G/4G capabilities, Qualcomm will offer the Snapdragon X16, or one of its kin, providing a foundational LTE peak data rate of 1 Gbps.  This means that at least in early implementations, it appears that 4G and 5G will require separate baseband processors and transceivers, a similar situation to early implementations of 3G.

The other aspect of X50 is the base station side.  The shorter ranges, diffraction, absorption and reflection characteristics of 28 GHz radio waves compared to those below 6 GHz mean that base stations will use a small cell architecture for 28 GHz.  In tests in 2015, Qualcomm used beamforming and MIMO with modest RF power levels to attain about 120 meters of range in industrial campus and urban environments.  This means that operators will probably use 28 GHz in user-dense areas first, deploying multiple small cells to support a single macrocell for added capacity during peak traffic load times of the day.

Qualcomm clearly wants to pull the industry in its direction with the X50.  We think the X50 will be a game changer, however, even if this does not happen, the X50 promises to pave the way to future signaling techniques and new spectrum bands for 5G by giving the industry an early look at 28 GHz technology and what it can and can’t do for OEMs, operators and consumers.

For more about 5G and the Snapdragon X50 5G Modem, subscribers can read an Insight report here.

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