The 5G race is in full swing, and there’s lots of competition for leadership in the space.
Some background on mmWave
One of the most complex parts of enabling 5G is mmWave frequencies and the antennas and front-ends that control them. MmWave technologies have never been used for mobile cellular communications before because of technological limitations. Because of the complexity and sensitivity of mmWave frequencies and getting them to the throughput numbers in the gigabits, there needs to be extremely tight integration between the different wireless components. As such, we’re seeing even tighter integration in the RF front-ends of 5G devices for both mmWave and sub-6GHz. Without tight integration, 5G NR in the mmWave spectrum won’t be able to deliver the multi-gigabit speeds that consumers have been promised with 5G.
The increasingly tighter integration of components has driven the industry more towards modules. This explains Qualcomm’s foray over the past couple of years into RF front-ends, and the resulting joint-venture with TDK. This joint venture has been crucial in the company’s advancements in wireless modules and its integration of components between the antenna and modem. With the introduction of 5G mmWave antennas and the complex beamforming that comes with it, the company has been working towards building 5G RF modules.
The new 5G NR modules have arrived
Today’s announcement is a fulfillment of Qualcomm’s commitment to deliver 5G NR modules that support both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies. For Qualcomm’s mmWave 5G module, the QTM052, the company has integrated all the RF components into the same module as the mmWave antennas, allowing for the most physically compact solution possible. This module will connect directly with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem to create a complete 5G wireless solution. This module can support 28 GHz and 39 GHz frequencies, with a bandwidth of 800 MHz—necessary to deliver the theoretical peak 5 Gbps of bandwidth. The module integrates 3 major components into a single package: the antenna arrays, the RF radio transceiver, and all the RF components (including filters and amplifiers).
Because the module is so small, the company can fit four of them in a single smartphone or tablet. By having four antenna modules located strategically around the device, Qualcomm is enabling the company’s OEM partners to have more flexibility in design without compromising on performance. While this module is considerably smaller than the previous generation of Qualcomm’s mmWave antennas, it retains the same 5 Gbps peak throughput that the modem supports. This 5G antenna and RF-front end module is the first of its kind in the industry and I suspect it will be the standard by which other companies build their solutions. As such, I believe that Qualcomm will have the lead on smartphone deployments of mmWave 5G. Companies like Samsung and Intel have separate RFFE and antennas, but I expect they will eventually integrate their solutions into a single module as well.
The second module, the QPM56xx, is the company’s 5G NR sub-6GHz module. This module is designed to simplify the deployment of 5G in mid-band and high-band spectrum for operators launching 5G first in sub-6GHz spectrum. This module does not include antennas since they are much larger and may be shared for other wireless connectivity like 4G or Wi-Fi. Qualcomm has more competition in this space since companies like Qorvo and Skyworks have already announced products. However, it seems that Qualcomm’s solution may be more integrated than its competitors’ and could prove valuable in space-constrained smartphone designs.
Both of Qualcomm’s new 5G NR modules and their derivatives are already sampling to customers and are expected to be in smartphones in the first half of 2019. Because Qualcomm is already sampling, it is giving its customers, the OEMs, more time to perfect their designs and dial-in performance. This includes extensive network testing with operators that are planning to light up their 5G NR networks in the next year and beyond. Qualcomm is well-positioned here, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.
Disclosure: My firm, Moor Insights & Strategy, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the industry, including