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Get ready for the Galaxy S22’s 5G experience—and maybe the iPhone 13’s.
Qualcomm today announced its X65 modem, the 4G/5G component that will connect 2022’s phones to carrier networks. The new modem allows for “10 gigabit” 5G connectivity, by expanding the number of 5G channels it can use at once. But there’s a lot more going on here, which could further transform how we use 5G.
Qualcomm’s modems are used in nearly every high-end phone in the US, including those from Samsung and Apple. Apple inked a “multiyear” deal with Qualcomm in 2019, to cover at least the iPhone 12, 13, and 14 models, after which it may (or may not) start using modems it develops itself.
The new modem will appear in phones in “late 2021,” according to Qualcomm. That means it has a chance of appearing in the iPhone 13. That would be a swerve for Apple, as it would mean skipping a generation of modems. The current iPhones have Qualcomm’s X55, and this would mean they skip the X60. But Apple may also be the only Qualcomm smartphone customer that could pull this trick off, as only Apple buys discrete modems from Qualcomm. Other manufacturers wait for the modems to be integrated into Qualcomm’s overall Snapdragon chipsets, which takes a few more months.
So in theory, at least, Qualcomm could give Apple a killer boost over Samsung in late 2021. Or Samsung could pave the way with new features in early 2022, if Apple doesn’t jump on this component.
When you’re hearing about these peak speeds, remember: it’s not really about 10Gbps to one person. It’s often about 100Mbps to 100 people, enabling reliable broadband speeds to far more users per cell than was possible before. That’s why Verizon had to turn to 5G to guarantee 35Mbps to every seat at the Super Bowl.
“More capacity in the network with higher average data rates means everyone can benefit,” Durga Malladi, Qualcomm’s general manager for 5G, said in a video.
Surfing the Broadest Wave
First, though, the speeds. The X65 achieves “10 gigabits” by using 10, 100MHz millimeter-wave channels, along with up to four channels of sub-6GHz spectrum totaling up to 300MHz. This beats the current X55 and X60 modems, which could handle 800MHz of millimeter-wave and 200MHz of sub-6. Since these new modems can now do non-contiguous carrier aggregation and combine millimeter-wave and sub-6 5G, they can assemble these huge bandwidths by mixing and matching: 100MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum, for example, plus 100MHz of millimeter-wave, 100MHz of C-band, and even 100MHz of Wi-Fi 6E airwaves.
Yes, Wi-Fi 6E. I’m very excited about NR-U, or 5G in unlicensed spectrum, a feature on the new chipsets. This is going to be an absolute banger when combined with the new Wi-Fi 6E airwaves. I am still not entirely sure how this is going to work, but Wi-Fi 6E has 1,200MHz of spectrum and 160MHz-wide channels, and it’s available for anyone who wants to grab it.
NR-U is part of a new set of 5G features called Release 16, which is coming first to the X65. I think support for Release 16 is more important that the 10-gig number, as few people will ever see or need those speeds. The latest version of the 5G spec, Release 16 promises a bunch of 5G features that we’ve been hearing about for two years now, but weren’t yet incorporated into hardware.
Network slicing is going to thrill some people, and scare others. In the non-neutral network world, network slicing is finally the tasty carrot in a world that’s been all sticks. It lets carriers create “slices” of their networks with guaranteed levels of service: super-low latency for a robotic factory, for instance, or guaranteed uplink bandwidth for a TV camera on a football field. For consumers, slicing could offer fast lanes with guaranteed service for VR gaming. While carriers have been able to slow down applications they don’t like in the 4G world, slicing will let them more easily speed up applications they do like.
Release 16 solves some other problems too. The biggest one is, how in holy Hannah do you backhaul a street full of 10-gig Galaxy phones? Aside from pulling yet more epic quantities of fiber, there’s a feature in Release 16 that lets 5G base stations share their millimeter-wave frequencies for wireless backhaul. Called “integrated access backhaul,” the feature dramatically reduces the amount of fiber that needs to be run. It won’t be available in base stations until 2022, according to a Fierce Wireless story, but that’s just a year away now.
Along with the modems, Qualcomm is releasing a new set of components that together comprise the “RF front end,” the complex of antenna tuners and amplifiers that get radio signal to the modem. The two key elements there are a new envelope tracker and an “AI-enhanced signal booster.” All in all, these parts reduce power consumption and improve signal strength by, say, not cranking an amplifier to try to listen in on an antenna that your hand is blocking, and instead switching attention to an uncovered antenna.
RF front end is extremely weedsy but ultimately, what it means is better battery life and better signal strength. According to Qualcomm, the new envelope tracker improves power efficiency in that component by 30%. There are a lot of other things using power on your phone, but this will probably add critical minutes to your streaming time.
X65’s Little Brother
X65 isn’t the only modem coming today. Qualcomm also announced a “little brother” version, the X62, a scaled-down X65. It has all of the Release 16 features, but only supports 400MHz of millimeter-wave and 120MHz of sub-6GHz. That gives it a maximum speed of 4.4Gbps.
Qualcomm says this modem is for hotspots and home-internet access devices, but I think it’s keeping a card up its sleeve. With the X55 modem generation, we saw a bigger X55 modem with the Qualcomm 865 chipset, and then a lower-spec X52 with the lower-cost 750G chipset. We might see the same game played in the X65 generation, with the X62 making its appearance on lower-cost phones and devices.
Can This Fix Home Wireless Access?
Qualcomm makes a good argument for 5G fixed wireless access; what it can’t explain, more than two years after Verizon launched its first 5G home internet pilot in 2018, is why it’s being leapfrogged on availability by competitors like Elon Musk’s Starlink system.
“Although we have technologies like cable and fiber that can technically be rolled out to everyone, it will take years before they can provide universal connectivity, not to mention the cost and time-consuming challenge with the deployment of these technologies,” Gautam Sheoran, Qualcomm senior director of product management for fixed wireless, said in a video.
Qualcomm is making fixed wireless access more appealing with a new, second-gen dedicated FWA platform based on the X65. Fixed wireless access has different needs than mobile phones. It’s plugged in, so you don’t care about battery life and instead want to pump your radio to get the best range and coverage possible.
The new system has a new QTM547, extended-range millimeter-wave antenna module (better for Verizon); 8-plexed receive antennas for sub-6GHz networks, which should improve range and signal quality on those lower frequencies (better for T-Mobile); and antenna steering technology to further optimize the use of those antennas.
Qualcomm says that the eight receive antennas will improve sub-6 coverage by up to 40%, and that high-power sub-6 mode will boost it by another 25%. That’s impressive.
5G home internet access has been a graveyard of unrealized promises for a while now. Verizon started its first 5G home internet pilot in late 2018. T-Mobile launched a 4G pilot in early 2019. Both carriers keep promising that they’ll offer competitive home internet access in the future, but that future always seems to be a few months away.
Verizon’s millimeter-wave network focuses on a basket of city centers. T-Mobile is best positioned for a big, competitive 5G launch this year, with a 2.5GHz mid-band 5G network that’s quickly spreading across the country. Yet it’s inexplicably still focusing on 4G for its home internet service, even as its 5G network expands quickly in terms of reach and capacity. Wireless observer Ian Littman says he’s heard a lack of modems is holding up T-Mobile’s launch, if not Verizon’s.
Americans are begging for more home internet choice. Carriers need to get over whatever their hump is and deliver.
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