SAN JOSE, Calif. — Qualcomm has started sampling 5G RF and antenna modules for smartphones, another piece of the puzzle for the cellular networks expected to start lighting up later this year. The parts suggest some of the design challenges that engineers will face packing the new capabilities into handsets.

Smartphones may use as many as four of the QTM052 antenna modules that come in versions supporting 26- to 40-GHz bands. The millimeter-wave signals enable high data rates at short ranges for urban and office networks but typically require multiple modules to provide both antenna diversity and avoid interference from a user’s hand.

The modules pack a 5G radio transceiver, power management IC, RF front end, and a 1 x 4 phased antenna array that supports beam forming, tracking, and steering. The company declined to provide the price, size, or power consumption of the modules or the process technology that they are made in but promised to release performance data later.

Qualcomm also released a set of RF modules for more traditional sub-6 bands ranging from 3.3 to 5.0 GHz. They pack power amplifiers and RF filters and support for massive MIMO.

The integrated modules “could potentially set the standard for plug-and-play RF system design for 5G mmWave,” says Malik Saadi, vice president of strategic technologies at market watcher ABI Research. He predicted China’s rising handset makers will use them to get a jump on Apple, Samsung and Huawei, “making both 5G mmWave and sub-6-GHz a reality far earlier than most industry observers had anticipated.”

With 5G, handset makers enter an era of hyper-fragmentation in frequency use. Qualcomm expects that some handsets will use LTE and mmwave 5G, others will use LTE and sub-6 5G, and some will implement all three.

In the U.S., AT&T and Verizon are expected to initially focus on mmwave 5G, turning on services before the end of the year. T-Mobile is starting 5G services soon on its 600-MHz bands, and Sprint is expected to start sub-6 operation early next year.

European carriers are expected to focus on sub-6 bands first with services starting early next year. Millimeter-wave and sub-6 bands are expected to coexist in much of Asia, including Korea and Japan. Overall, a proliferation of 5G bands will be used around the world, expanding the already diverse set used with LTE.

Nevertheless, device support is coming quickly. Early last-mile and bridge products linking 5G to Wi-Fi and USB will emerge later this year. Handsets are expected to follow before June.

Qualcomm 5G mmwave transceiver

The QTM052 (upper left) integrates a millimeter-wave transceiver, RF front end, and phased-array antenna, geared for use with the X50 5G baseband below it.
(Image: Qualcomm)

The difficulty of designing for millimeter waves may force many OEMs to use reference designs from Qualcomm or others, making it harder for them to differentiate their 5G handsets, said Prakash Sangam, an analyst who previously worked for Qualcomm and Ericsson.

The need for a broad portfolio of highly integrated RF and antenna components will challenge Qualcomm’s rivals, including Intel and Skyworks, said Sangam.

Qorvo was among the first to launch a 5G RF front end with its QM19000, announced in February and integrating a power amp, transceiver, and filters. However, it only supported 3.3- to 4.2-GHz bands and provided 400-MHz bandwidth.

Separately, Qualcomm compiled data from third-party tests of LTE handset throughput, showing that its LTE modems significantly outperformed those of its closest rival, Intel.

— Rick Merritt, Silicon Valley Bureau Chief, EE Times