Last month, Intel pulled ahead of Qualcomm with the introduction of a 5G modem that could support wide-band 28 GHz mmWave and sub-6 GHz connectivity, the new bands that will be put to use in the speedier, more localized 5G era. Well, Qualcomm just blew the doors off all that by announcing some big advances they’ve made in their upcoming X50 line of 5G modems.
At Mobile World Congress, Qualcomm has just announced that not only will their X50 modems support both wide-band 28 GHz mmWave and sub-6 GHz connectivity, they’ll also be able to connect to 2G, 3G, 4G, 4G LTE, and the nascent 4G LTE Gigabit networks, even going so far as to be able to connect to Gigabit LTE and a 5G network simultaneously.
The key here is that the new modems support both standalone and non-standalone operation. Standalone operation is the ideal — complete reliance on the 5G network, particularly the mmWave and sub-6 GHz bands that will be added to the 5G New Radio (NR) standard (the presumptive global 5G standard). We’ll get there someday, but the problem is that there has to be a transition period — all those new (and possibly very small) 5G towers can’t be deployed overnight. For years, it’ll be necessary to have a 4G LTE network (or even a 3G or 2G network, in some areas), as backup in case a 5G network isn’t within range. That’s non-standalone operation, and it’s what Qualcomm’s X50 modems are now capable of on their own.
What’s it mean for us? It means that we’ll get faster smartphones and networks sooner, if all goes well. By making a kind of bridge modem between the 4G and 5G eras, Qualcomm is laying the groundwork for carriers to launch 5G networks and services before they’re widespread. Granted, the benefits will only accrue to the lucky people who live in areas where 5G networks will go up first, but hey, someone will be happy! Those 5G services could now launch as soon as 2019, instead of 2020 or later, as had been predicted before.
But, this will mostly be important for smartphones. The other major reasons for a new 5G network — autonomous cars and drone delivery — probably won’t be affected as much. They’ll still be just as far away, because they’ll need standalone operation. Not only will 5G networks be faster, they’ll be lower latency and will be able to provide dedicated bands to cars and commercial drones. To make these operations possible on a large scale, those vehicles will need to rely completely on all the benefits that 5G brings to the table — a connected car reverting to a higher-latency 4G LTE network to power a safety feature is a huge liability.
Qualcomm did announce that they expect their 5G NR modems to be ready by 2019, which establishes an early timetable for rollout of 5G services (and smartphones!) to consumers. The ball is now in Intel’s court, and it leaves the other would-be major 5G modem players — namely, Samsung and Huawei — in a big hole.