Qualcomm’s 5G reference design phone is one of several innovations the chipmaker is showing off at its 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong, all designed to show how 5G spectrum is going to get crammed into small form factors.
Right now, 5G devices tend to be at least the size of a breadbox. Qualcomm is showing off a single-chip 5G modem, the X50, and a tiny millimeter-wave antenna designed to capture the extremely high frequencies on which some 5G will be transmitted.
“Counter to prevailing opinion that millimeter-wave is just too finicky to use in mobile, we can use advanced massive MIMO techniques and beam-forming techniques to make millimeter-wave mobile,” said Sherif Hanna, Staff Manager of Product Marketing for 4G and 5G at Qualcomm.
Tiny antennas have their downsides. Hanna said phones with the little antenna won’t be able to capture millimeter-wave signals indoors. Rather, they’ll rely on 4G (and on low-band, 600MHz 5G like T-Mobile is setting up) inside, unless they’re in a building that has set up a millimeter-wave repeater system.
Qualcomm insists that the X50 modem will sit alongside the Snapdragon processor in the first commercial 5G smartphones, but I’m not entirely sure about that. Although Qualcomm says they’re working hard to minimize this problem, adding a discrete, extra modem to a 4G phone adds to battery drain. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if 2019’s Snapdragons had an integrated 5G modem – although, since that’s two years away, Qualcomm wouldn’t be talking about that yet. For now, they want to make it clear that the X50 works.
“Our intention is, by creating this 5G smartphone reference design, that we can start testing this out in the field,” Hanna said, “How are the thermals going to work? There’s obviously a lot of work left ahead of us in the next 12 months, and we want to get a leg up on it now,” he said.
There’s an ideological method to this madness. Qualcomm is still the leader in high-quality 4G modems, and it wants to show why the absolute highest 4G speeds will be needed, to offer a seamless experience in a 5G world.
The company is also enmeshed in a web of lawsuits over its royalty rates and licensing fees, and needs to keep creating new, proprietary technologies to keep the money coming. 5G will be a global standard, but there are elements smartphone makers will want—such as that tiny antenna—which Qualcomm will be able to keep to itself.
“The miniaturization of the antenna module, that’s going to be proprietary and we believe we have an edge there,” Hanna said.