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There’s new competition in 5G. Today MediaTek announced its first millimeter-wave (mmWave) 5G modem, the M80, which will go into phones later this year.
The M80 will become the first chip likely to compete with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 5G modems in US phones, most potentially expanding the use of the fast mmWave systems on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks.
MediaTek is now the world’s number-one mobile chipset maker, according to Counterpoint Research. But its market share is mostly focused in lower-end phones, and mostly outside the US. The new 5G modem will help MediaTek appeal more to US carriers.
“In the US market, at least, mmWave is going to continue to have more and more importance,” says Finbarr Moynihan, MediaTek general manager of sales. “While our US market share isn’t as large as it is globally, it’s creeping up.” He predicts we’ll see “a number of more” 5G devices launched with MediaTek chipsets in the US this year.
The mmWave Difference
The US is unique in the world of 5G for its early reliance on millimeter-wave, a very fast stretch of airwaves with very short range. While the rest of the world started with mid-band 5G and saved mmWave for later, the US largely went the other way around, encouraged in part by local player Qualcomm.
Cell phone modems in the US were previously a three-player game between Qualcomm, MediaTek, and Intel. Now there are just two players, as Apple has absorbed Intel’s modem division in preparation to strike out on its own. Qualcomm doesn’t have a global monopoly on millimeter-wave modems, but it has an effective one in the US. Samsung’s Exynos 5123 modem supports mmWave, but Samsung does not generally offer Exynos products in the US for mysterious reasons. Huawei’s Balong line has supported mmWave since 2019, but its chips are essentially barred from US markets by anti-Huawei political sentiment.
In part because of the expense of mmWave, AT&T and T-Mobile haven’t shown much enthusiasm about putting it in their phones. Verizon’s 5G network was predominantly mmWave until October, and Verizon has generally required mmWave in its 5G phones. But AT&T and T-Mobile have generally gone with less expensive “Sub-6” phones outside Apple and Samsung flagships.
So now the MediaTek M80 enters the ring. MediaTek’s chipsets tend to be less expensive than US market leader Qualcomm’s, leading to the potential for more affordable phones. The M80 has everything you expect from a cutting-edge 5G modem. It does eight 100MHz carriers of millimeter-wave; two 100MHz carriers of sub-6 5G; and/or five carriers of 4G LTE. It supports dual 5G SIMs with dual standalone and dual voice-over-5G. It can combine TDD 5G, FDD 5G, millimeter-wave, and sub-6 fluently. As a Release 16 chipset, it supports private networks and network slicing. And of course, it supports the upcoming C-band in the US.
MediaTek will also produce an RF front end, the complex of antennas and amplifiers that lets a phone receive and process radio signals.
“Internally, we are developing a full mmWave system including all the RF front end,” Moynihan says. “We will have that capability in-house… but I think whether that’s the only option or not is an open question at this point.”
We’ll see what happens, but I expect that the M80 will first appear in lower-cost LG, Motorola, and TCL phones towards the end of this year.
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