Qualcomm adds 5G modem to chips for cheap smartphones

June 24, 2020 //By James Morra, Electronic Design
Qualcomm Plants 5G Modem in Chips for Cheap Smartphones
The Snapdragon 690 chip contains the X51 modem, which supports data rates of 2.5 Gbps and upload speeds of 660 Mbps. The chip can connect to 5G networks in any part of the world, but it lacks the ability to access the fastest millimetre wave frequencies.

Qualcomm is looking to roll out its 5G modems to the billions of people unable to afford handsets with the wireless technology inside. The company said it has added an advanced 5G modem for the first time to its line of chips designed for cheap smartphones, in a bid to persuade more people to upgrade to 5G phones at a time when demand has declined globally.

Qualcomm has long been the world’s top vendor of chips used in 3G and 4G smartphones. The company has also leaped to the lead in selling modem chips for the first generation of flagship 5G smartphones rolled out by Samsung, Vivo, Oppo, and LG. But these premium models are priced at more than $1,000 to account for the cost of integrating discrete 5G modems.

The company has been trying to move its 5G modems into budget smartphones by rolling out chips with the 5G modem embedded inside, including the new Snapdragon 690 chip. Qualcomm said the new chip would be used in 5G phones that are priced at only $300 to $500, addressing the high prices that have been keeping consumers from upgrading to 5G devices.

New phones based on the Snapdragon 690 chip should be on the market by the second half of 2020.

Christiano Amon, Qualcomm's president, said that adding 5G modems to chips targeted at budget phones has the potential "to make 5G accessible to more than 2 billion smartphone users around the world." More than 375 designs are in development or on the market using Qualcomm's 5G modems to date. There are more than 1,800 products in the pipeline based on its Snapdragon 6-series chips, the San Diego, California-based company said. 

The chip is based on its X51 modem, which supports data rates up to 2.5 Gbps and upload speeds of 660 Mbps. The chip can connect to 5G networks in any part of the world where its customers sell phones. Qualcomm said it can handle transmissions based on TDD—which are used to funnel data over the same frequency using slightly different time slots—or FDD standards—used to relay data over slightly different frequencies at the same time. 

There are tradeoffs, however. The Snapdragon 690 chip connects to 5G networks based on the sub-6 frequency bands. The chip is incapable of connecting to millimeter waves, which support faster data transfers but struggle to reach over long distances. These signals can also be deflected by physical obstacles unless advanced cellular antennas are crammed around the sides of the phone. The problem is that these parts are costly, analysts say.

The San Diego, California-based company is looking to lure customers that sell midrange and budget smartphones as a way to start selling higher volumes of its 5G modem chips.

Olivier Blanchard, senior analyst at Futurum Research, said that "not everyone wants to or can afford to dish out upwards of $1,000 for premium smartphones every 2 to 3 years." He said that while "sales of premium-priced flagship handsets still look strong, consumers are increasingly looking for better value in their smartphone and can now readily find it in the $400 to $800 range and below."

Steve Mollenkopf, Qualcomm's chief executive, said last month that its roadmap for the rollout of 5G networks was unchanged. But he warned some of its customers could delay product launches due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting drop in demand. Qualcomm said it has not changed its 2020 estimate for global shipments of 5G phones. Last year, the company said 175 million to 225 million units would be sold globally.

The share of smartphones shipped with 5G modems in the first quarter of 2020 was 8%, up from 1% a year ago, said Varun Mishra, a smartphone analyst at Counterpoint Research.

next: a full family of 5G chips

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