Last week, we saw the next step forward in cellular network technology in the United States. Sprint, which might be the comeback kid of the big four in the 4G+ and 5G eras, debuted the United States’ first Gigabit LTE network in New Orleans. The demonstration used Sprint’s network and a Qualcomm modem sitting in an unnamed phone from Motorola.
In general, hitting Gigabit and greater speeds requires connection to more than one cellular radio frequency, which wasn’t possible with a mobile device until the last couple years. Sprint’s now taking advantage of that new technology — among others, Qualcomm’s modems enable carrier aggregation along with a 4×4 MIMO antenna array. Put simply, that modem can receive and produce four different radio frequencies at once, helping to up the max data transfer speed.
But, Sprint’s not just a passenger here. As it turns out, they’re well positioned for the next few years of network progression — they’ve bought tons of 2.5 GHz spectrum over the years, which is the top-speed frequency that will be used in their new Gigabit network.
Of course, a Gigabit network requires a phone that can handle Gigabit speeds. As luck (probably not luck) would have it, we’re expecting the first round of those phones this year. The new high-end Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 SoC will be found in a lot of new phones this year, including the Samsung Galaxy S8, a new ZTE phone, and surely many others. The 835 contains Qualcomm’s X16 modem, which has the power to allow for Gigabit speeds.
Because 5G hasn’t been officially been defined yet, it’s important to set some early guidelines. Although nothing is set in stone yet, it’s generally accepted that Gigabit LTE falls short of what 5G will be — in addition to much higher speeds, 5G is also expected to be a much lower-latency network, with many new frequency bands to allow for specialization (like a band just for autonomous or connected cars). Intel and Qualcomm have already introduced their first 5G modems, which are expected to be improved quite a bit before they start ending up in smartphones and other devices. That will likely happen around 2020, when 5G rollout is expected to get underway in full force.