Qualcomm's 5G preview: high frequencies, 5-gigabit speed

Qualcomm plans to ship what it calls a 5G modem in 2018

20160225 stock mwc ericsson 5g mobile demonstration closeup
Ericsson demonstrated potential 5G mobile wireless technologies using millimeter-wave frequencies in its booth at Mobile World Congress 2016. Credit: Stephen Lawson

5G networks will be five times as fast as the quickest LTE technology by using the highest cellular frequencies ever, according to Qualcomm, which provided a glimpse of its next-generation modem plans on Tuesday.

The X50 modem won’t ship until the first half of 2018, and 5G networks aren’t expected to go commercial until 2020. But Qualcomm will have a lot to say about the new technology at its 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong on Tuesday. At the same event, it’s announcing plans around its gigabit-speed X16 LTE modem.

The X50 will offer download speeds as high as 5Gbps (bits per second), where networks support them, using millimeter-wave frequencies and futuristic techniques for beaming signals to devices, according to slides prepared for the 4G/5G Summit. Qualcomm shared the materials in advance.

The X50 initially will use the 28GHz band, which is also the focus of 5G development work at the Verizon 5G Technology Forum and Korea Telecom 5G Special Interest Group. It’s one of several millimeter-wave bands that are widely expected to be used for 5G.

Cellular networks up to now have stayed below 6GHz, because higher frequencies don’t naturally travel as far or go through objects as easily. But a lot more bandwidth is expected to become available in millimeter-wave bands in the coming years. Qualcomm says the X50 will be able to use a combined 800MHz of spectrum, compared with up to 80MHz for the X16.

The future modem will use several emerging techniques to make this work. Key tools are beam-forming and beam-tracking, in which a cell can focus its signal to reach a specific mobile device and then follow that device as it moves around. The X50 will even be able to bounce its signal off hard surfaces in order to get around objects between the cell and the user.

Qualcomm expects the X50 modem to ship to system makers in sample quantities starting in the second half of next year. Combined with a gigabit-speed LTE modem, the X50 will form the basis of dual-mode 4G/5G devices. LTE and 5G are expected to coexist for many years.

Meanwhile, the X16 LTE modem will be coming out in a consumer device in the next few months. The NetGear Mobile Router MR1100, a mobile hotspot that provides a Wi-Fi connection on the go, will be sold by Australian carrier Telstra, Qualcomm announced Tuesday.

The company is also announcing that the X16 will be integrated into its next-generation processor in the Snapdragon 800 class, Qualcomm’s line of chips for high-end mobile devices.

The X16 uses a variety of techniques to reach a theoretical maximum speed of 1Gbps – a rate that no user is likely to get in the real world but is well above comparable top speeds on current LTE devices.

Among other things, it can use many antennas to create four streams of bits and can combine multiple chunks of spectrum to create a fatter pipe.

One technique the X16 can use to create that fat pipe is controversial: It’s equipped for LTE-U (LTE-Unlicensed), which combines channels used by Wi-Fi with a carrier’s licensed spectrum. It could give cellular customers better LTE performance in crowded areas, but some Wi-Fi supporters are concerned it might degrade other people’s Wi-Fi experience.

A set of coexistence tests approved by both sides last month should prevent that from happening. But in much of the world, including Europe and Japan, LTE-U won’t even be allowed. There, carriers are looking to LAA (Licensed Assisted Access) to achieve the same thing. LAA has different protections for Wi-Fi built in. Interestingly, in its slides on the announcement at the 4G/5G Summit, Qualcomm said the X16 supports LAA but didn’t mention LTE-U. The company did confirm that the modem will support LTE-U.

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