With carrier trials for 5G New Radio (NR) cellular communications set to take place later this year, the marketing, promotion, and technical disclosures around 5G technology are picking up at a rapid pace. Similar to what we saw with the launch of LTE networks and devices just short of a decade ago, carriers, device manufacturers, and chipset providers are all anticipating 5G to be a significant market growth opportunity, and as such are all racing to implement the technology into their networks and handsets. At the same time, of course, there is also a significant amount of jockeying for position among all of the parties to be the first to deliver a complete 5G ecosystem, and consequently the bragging rights and potential profits that come from being first.

Arguably at the head of the pack on the user equipment (handset) side is Qualcomm, the 800lb gorilla of the mobile world. The backbone of the company’s business is built around developing cellular technologies and standards, so the company is significantly invested into 5G and is looking to maintain their leadership status for the next generation. To date the company has already announced their first discrete 5G modem, the Snapdragon X50, and with trials less than a year away, they’re already starting to count up the number of carrier and OEM partnerships around the still in development modem.

All told, Qualcomm believes they’re 1-2 years ahead of the competition in the 5G modem space. And while we’re still far enough out that this remains to be seen – Intel wants to ship their own modem in 2019 as well – for the moment Qualcomm does have the edge in as much as they’ve already shown demos of X50 prototypes in action. This also means that at least for the moment, they’re the only game in town for high-performance 5G modems.

To that end, hitting the wire today are a pair of announcements from Qualcomm, who is affirming the dozens of partnerships the company has inked both with carriers and handset manufacturers regarding the use of the X50 modem. Some 18 carriers will be including Qualcomm’s X50-based 5G smartphone reference design in their live trials later this year, and the list is basically a who’s who of carriers. This includes AT&T, Verizon, China Telecom, Orange, and SK Telecom. Notably, all 18 carriers will be testing both the sub-6GHz and all-important millimeter wave frequency bands as part of their trials.

Meanwhile on the handset side of matters, 19 OEMs have now signed on to build and release handsets based around the X50 modem in 2019. As you might expect given Qualcomm’s projected lead, this list of 19 OEMs amounts to just about everyone in the industry, from HTC to OPPO to Xiaomi. In fact it’s probably easier to talk about who isn’t on the list, which are the Big 3: Apple, Samsung, and Huawei. Which as all three design their own SoCs – and in Apple’s case, is also currently involved in litigation with Qualcomm – this is essentially all the vendors Qualcomm could hope to sign in advance and get to agree to such an announcement.

Overall these announcements are definitely a bit of chest-beating on Qualcomm's part, as we’re talking about handsets and networks that won’t be available for over a year. But at the same time it marks the start of the broader 5G adoption process: with the first standard complete (release 15), 5G is no longer an abstract concept, but instead is a near-complete technology that is now less than one complete product development cycle away from being a commercial product. So it is in Qualcomm’s own best interests to continue to woo both technology companies and consumers. Especially as while Qualcomm’s big vision for 5G involves a lot more than just smartphones, it will be consumer demand for the technology that spurs on the creation of the first 5G networks.

Though for that matter it will be interesting to see just what the inclusion of the X50 modem means for handset designs in 2019. Qualcomm has previously revealed that the X50 modem is 5G-only – so it doesn’t include LTE/3G/2G connectivity – meaning that handset manufacturers will still need to incorporate an additional LTE modem (either discrete or as part of the phone’s primary SoC), increasing the total chip count of a handset. Coupled with the array of antennas needed to efficiently work with millimeter wave frequencies, and it definiately puts some pressure on the limited internal volume of phones. With so many manufacturers signed on to use the X50, it may mean that we'll get to see high-end 2019 phones finally break the status-quo in phone design of the last few years in order to accommodate the 5G technology.

Press Release: Mobile Operators Select Snapdragon X50 5G Modem For Trials
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  • shabby - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    Samsung and Apple aren't on the list? Rip qualcomm... Reply
  • leo_sk - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    They are most likely developing their own chips (or apple may go with intel modems). Other oems who use flagship snapdragon will most likely have x50 Reply
  • SamitBasu - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    Indeed Apple is going with Intel solution. Samsung is going with the inhouse solution, which is actually a year ahead of the X50 in product development schedule. Reply
  • BurntMyBacon - Friday, February 09, 2018 - link

    @SamitBasu: "Samsung is going with the inhouse solution, which is actually a year ahead of the X50 in product development schedule."

    I haven't really been keeping up with modem development, but a quick search leaves me wondering where this statement is coming from. I'm finding articles that suggest Samsung is having some difficulties with mm wavelength radios due to their inexperience. If Samsung is a year ahead of them, then that means they've had the ability to run a tech demo roughly equal to Qualcomm's for over a year now. Also, Qualcomm and Intel plan to have modems available in 2019. Given the talk of phones with 5G in 2019, it won't be at the end of the year as they'll need to be available in time for manufacturers to integrate them. If Samsung is a year ahead, shouldn't we be expecting Samsung's modem to be available relatively soon. Haven't heard any announcements yet, so I have to ask what your source is for this information.
    Reply
  • SamitBasu - Friday, February 09, 2018 - link

    "but a quick search leaves me wondering where this statement is coming from."

    1. Verizon CEO was making the first intercontinental 5G calls using Samsung's 5G mini-tablet on mmwave 5G connection during the Super Bowl 2018. https://venturebeat.com/2018/02/05/verizon-quietly...

    2. Qualcomm was showing off its X50 which looked more like a lab experiment than anything that resembles a commercial grade product a few days later. #Facepalm.

    3. Right now, Samsung and Intel 5G solutions are being field tested at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics where there is a mmwave 5G network up and running. Qualcomm is a no show, probably because they have nothing to field test at the moment.

    "I'm finding articles that suggest Samsung is having some difficulties with mm wavelength radios due to their inexperience."

    It's a wrong article, obviously. Any wireless carrier field testing mmwave 5G are using Samsung basestation and home routers exclusvely, even the ones that never used Samsung equipment before like Aquivar and Orange. Why? Because Samsung is the king of mmwave 5G and no other vendor is able to supply what Samsung has been delivering since 2q2017. Heck, Verizon is building its very first commercial mmwave 5G network in Sacramento using Samsung 5G basestations at this very moment. https://news.samsung.com/global/verizon-selects-sa...

    "Also, Qualcomm and Intel plan to have modems available in 2019."

    Well, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G Edition is scheduled to enter production by November this year in order to be ready for March 2019 mmwave 5G commercial launch. This means Samsung's 5G modem enters production by fall. Samsung really is one year ahead of Qualcomm in mmwave 5G.

    "If Samsung is a year ahead, shouldn't we be expecting Samsung's modem to be available relatively soon."

    Yes, full production by fall for the commercial grade chips. Basestation 5G modem chips are already in production.

    Haven't heard any announcements yet

    Samsung doesn't make flash announcements; Samsung just puts a fully functional 5G mini-tablet in the hand of Verizon's CEO and let him have fun with 4 Gbits/s speed during the Super Bowl.
    Reply
  • sing_electric - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    You know customers can chose not to show up on that list, right? Although Samsung and Apple both develop their own SoCs, so far, they've both used Qualcomm modems in at least a fair % of their phones (I think Apple also splits with Intel, but doesn't (yet?) make their own modems.

    My bet is that Samsung will use Qualcomm's modems in at least some of its phones (or in some regions) in 2019, just like everyone else.

    Apple, on the other hand, has never really cared about being on the "bleeding edge" of network tech - remember, they released the OG iPhone with a **2G** modem in it, at a time when 3G phones had been around for years, and they didn't add LTE until the iPhone 5 in last 2012, well over a year after most high-end Android handsets added LTE.
    Reply
  • SamitBasu - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    sing_electric

    "My bet is that Samsung will use Qualcomm's modems in at least some of its phones"

    Samsung has no obligation to use Qualcomm's AP once Qualcomm moves its foundry work from Samsung to TSMC. This is why Samsung is dropping Snapdragon in 5G Galaxys.
    Reply
  • Mr Perfect - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    Qualcomm doesn't own any patents on 5G technology, do they? IIRC, they hold some patents relating to the 4G standard and get royalties from anyone who makes a 4G modem. If they pulled that crap again, they'll make money whether a phone has a Qualcomm modem in it or not. Reply
  • sherifhanna - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    Hi - this is Sherif from Qualcomm. Actually 5G NR is in fact built on several key Qualcomm inventions that have been accepted into the standard: https://www.qualcomm.com/news/onq/2017/12/18/five-... Reply
  • SamitBasu - Thursday, February 08, 2018 - link

    They do, but not as much as Samsung. Samsung is the new Qualcomm of 5G era. Notice how the very first operational 5G silicon is the Exynos 5G, not the X50. Reply

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