Qualcomm's Second-Gen Chip Takes 5G to 7 Gbit/s

Mike Dano
2/19/2019

Qualcomm is hoping its new X55 modem helps bolster the company's claim that it's the leading supplier of silicon for the 5G era -- and that it expands Qualcomm's addressable 5G market.

"Most of the industry is still trying to figure out their first generation" of 5G, said Nitin Dhiman of Qualcomm, the world's largest vendor of wireless modems with 52% of the market according to Strategy Analytics. “We are already looking at our second generation at a time where a lot of others are having to do a lot of proof of concept in terms of actual implementation."

And some analysts tend to agree.

"I believe that the X55 is Qualcomm's continuation of their leadership in 5G. The fact that this is Qualcomm's second generation of chips and it is already shipping to customers means that they're considerably further ahead of the competition," said Anshel Sag, an analyst with research and consulting firm Moor Insights & Strategy. "It's possible that we could even see these chips in devices by the end of the year which means that we could see Qualcomm shipping their first and second generation of 5G modems in the same year."

Importantly, Qualcomm said its new X55 modem -- an update to the company's first 5G modem, the X50, released in 2016 -- is being tested by some of the company's device customers now, and should hit the market in commercial devices (likely smartphones) in the latter part of 2019. Qualcomm added that the chipset supports maximum speeds up to 7 Gbit/s by combining transmissions in LTE and 5G. (Qualcomm's X50 supported maximum speeds up to 5 Gbit/s.)

Further, Qualcomm's new X55 is a "multimode" modem, meaning that 5G and 2G can live next to each other on the chip, a design that generally leads to thinner devices with better battery life. Qualcomm's original X50 separated 5G from 4G, 3G and 2G.

The timing of the release of Qualcomm's X55 is important because the San Diego company is battling an incursion by Intel into its smartphone modem business. Intel, for its part, announced in November its XMM 8160 5G modem -- supporting speeds up to 6 Gbit/s -- and the company said it expects the chip to ship in commercial devices starting in 2020.

Neither Qualcomm nor Intel have disclosed the identity of the smartphone makers that will sell their respective 5G modems, but Qualcomm counts the likes of LG and Motorola as customers while Intel counts Apple has a customer. And Qualcomm has named more than 20 manufacturers making devices with its X50.

"Intel's 8160 still has a bit more time to go in terms of shipping and commercialization, but I believe we'll get a good idea of real side by side comparisons by the beginning of 2020 when Intel starts to ship in commercial devices. Although, I have a feeling those first devices might not be smartphones. Nevertheless, Qualcomm is without a doubt keeping the fire under their competition and with this 7Gbit/s modem, we could see some really great speeds later this year."


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The battle between Qualcomm and Intel in the world of 5G modems is particularly noteworthy considering Apple conducted a high-profile split with Qualcomm in its newest phones, which only support modems from Intel. That action coincided with Apple's legal attack against Qualcomm: Apple argues Qualcomm charges too much money for access to its patents for wireless technologies. Qualcomm has denied those allegations, and the silicon vendor recently won a battle in its war with Apple when the iPhone vendor decided to start selling Qualcomm-powered iPhones in Germany again to avoid a ban on its products in the country due to the ongoing patent litigation between the two companies.

But beyond the legal turmoil around Qualcomm's fight with Apple, the company's release of its new 5G modem also brings with it several noteworthy developments. Most importantly, Qualcomm said the modem is designed to work in a wider range of devices. The company said its X50 modem was primarily intended for smartphones, hotspots and fixed wireless services. Its new X55 can support those devices as well as laptops, tablets, connected cars, VR goggles and more.

"Our business prospects remain very healthy as 5G begins to ramp through the balance of this year and beyond," noted Qualcomm's Steve Mollenkopf during the company's recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. "Our Snapdragon platform continues to outperform industry benchmarks and is well-positioned to successfully enable the low latency, high reliability and security requirements of 5G. We continue to extend this expertise with handset OEMs and adjacent industries of compute IoT and auto."

Qualcomm's new 7nm X55 chip also works on the nonstandalone and standalone versions of 5G in both TDD and FDD configurations and adds 26GHz millimeter-wave support to the 28GHz and 39GHz bands that the X50 already supported. Qualcomm's Dhiman explained that the company added 26GHz support to the product because that spectrum band is soon due to be auctioned to operators in the United States, Australia and elsewhere.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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