Qualcomm predicts 10,000 5G spectrum bands, hits gigabit speed with X50

For all its troubles in its licensing business, Qualcomm still consistently sets the pace in modem engineering. Its X50 5G modem chipset, which it launched last year, has now hit gigabit download speeds in a demonstration at the firm’s labs in San Diego, the first publicly to achieve this central goal of 5G standards. It has also pointed to a 5G world in which “10,000” spectrum bands may be in play, making the current model of global band harmonization redundant.

The company used the X50 combined with the SDR051 RF transceiver chip, showing that Qualcomm aims to supply the whole chain from processor to modem to RF in 5G, as it has started to do in 4G since launching its RF360 product. The speed was achieved by aggregating “several” 100 MHz 5G carriers in the 28 GHz band.

This combination of technologies has been included in a reference design to help speed development for device makers. Qualcomm also used testing firm Keysight Technologies’ new 5G Protocol R&D Toolset and UXM 5G Wireless Test Platform.

Dimitris Mavrakis, research director at ABI Research, said having a reference design for 5G in millimeter wave spectrum would “likely create a new wave of innovation in the chipset and device ecosystem, which will eventually feed into commercial devices. Qualcomm’s reference design is perhaps a more important announcement in that aspect; using this design, vendors can now create compatible devices and develop products for 5G.”

At Qualcomm’s 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong last week, the company announced that it was working with Verizon and Novatel Wireless on 5G New Radio trials (see separate item on Verizon 5G).

It also unveiled the Snapdragon 636 system-on-chip, claiming a 40% increase in performance compared to its predecessor, by using the new Kyro 260 processor architecture. The 636’s Adreno 509 GPU also increases gaming and browsing performance by 10%, said the vendor, and its X12 LTE modem drives peak download speeds to 600Mbps with picture quality of up to 24-megapixels. The platform will begin shipping next month.

Upgrading the RF front end will be highly strategic to Qualcomm’s ability to compete in 5G, now that it has moved away from relying on third parties in this area. For its 5G NR reference designs, it has various band combinations including sub-6 GHz and mmWave options, which will be in the field next year. In a keynote at the summit, Cristiana Amon, president of Qualcomm Technologies, said the old assumption that every spectrum bands must be internationally harmonized must be thrown out. Operators will need to use any spectrum they can get, and chipmakers must support ever-greater band complexity in a flexible and dynamic, not rules-bound way.

Qualcomm relishes the challenge, she said, because it “allows us to push the boundaries of technologies in how we can maintain the great economies of scale with 5G”. In early 4G, about 16 bands were identified to give a device worldwide coverage (and that led to many debates about impossible levels of band fragmentation). With carrier aggregation, the number for LTE-Advanced has increased to 49. But Amon said that for LTE-A Pro and 5G, the number could run into thousands because of heavier reliance on different aggregations. “When we go to 5G, that’s going to go to 10,000,” she said.