Qualcomm has unveiled its first 5G modem, promising US and Korean consumers 5Gbps download speeds in 2018.
Qualcomm's senior manager of Technical Marketing, Sherif Hanna, unveiled the Snapdragon X50 to TrustedReviews during an exclusive press briefing, talking it up as the first consumer-class 5G mobile modem in the world.
“The Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 is the world’s first 5G modem," Hanna told us. "It is designed to support early 5G trials and launches on Verizon in the US, and in Korea with Korea Telecom. It will support 5Gbps download speeds."
The 5Gbps speeds is a big step up on current 4G networks, which in the UK still haven’t even managed to break the 1Gbps barrier.
5G is a next-generation networking technology that's still in its infant stages, especially in Europe, where it isn’t expected to roll out until at least 2020.
Related: 5G vs 4G: What's the difference?
Explaining the Snapdragon X50 5G modem
Qualcomm is one of many companies working to bring 5G to the masses. Huawei reported successfully hitting 3.6Gbps download speeds in a 5G "field trial" at the end of 2015, but the big question surrounding 5G is what wave-band companies should run the network on.
Hanna said Qualcomm achieved the 5Gbps speed by using a specialist type of band – one that the majority of telecoms companies have ignored.
“The modem gets its speed, initially, by operating in the 28GHz millimeter wave band. This is a new spectrum that's never been used for cellular services before. It operates at a much higher frequency range,” he explained.
“The advantage [of that] is that it can provide a very wide bandwidth. So if you look at the X16 LTE modem, the maximum bandwidth it supports is 80MHz, but the X50 modem supports 800MHz of bandwidth. That’s how it gets the extreme download speeds.”
The millimeter wave spectrum was previously ignored, since it can’t reach long distances, and it isn’t powerful enough to penetrate walls. Hanna said the company had to completely redesign the modem’s antenna system to overcome these problems.
“The antennas will look very different: instead of having two of four in the handset, you'll have an array of smaller antennas. They're much smaller because of the spectrum they’re operating in, so instead of just a couple, we use 16 or 24 or 32 antennas.
"We then get them working together, so they can direct the energy of the transmission to one direction or the other. This tech is called beamforming, or beamsteering,” he said.
Hanna added: “If we can direct the energy, we can play tricks such as bouncing it off walls. The mobile device with the X50 modem can direct the energy to bounce and go round corners. We’ve demonstrated it successfully in our prototypes. Now we plan to bring it to integrated circuits.”
He also noted that mobile devices with the X50 will be able to switch between 4G if a 5G signal isn't available.
Hanna didn’t specify which OEMs will use the 5G modem, but promised the first commercial devices with it will hit the Korean and US markets in the first-half of 2018.
4G’s also getting some love
At the same event, Qualcomm confirmed it will be releasing the first range of consumer devices running its X16 LTE modem by the end of the year. The X16 was announced at the start of 2016 and, according to Qualcomm, is the first 1Gbps speed mobile modem.
The tech will initially launch in Australia as a part of a joint project between Qualcomm, Telstra, Ericsson and Netgear.
“The Netgear Mobile Router LR1100 supports gigabit speeds and will be rolled out by Telstra to leading customers in the next few months,” Hanna told us.
Hanna didn’t disclose if, or when, the tech would be rolled out to the mass market, but did confirm it will make an appearance in the company’s next flagship Snapdragon 800 series mobile CPU. He said: “In 2017, there will be gigabit connectivity on smartphones. We also expect that there will be several 1Gbps network launches."
Hanna didn’t offer any specific information on when Qualcomm expects the 4G upgrade to arrive in the UK.
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