SAN JOSE, Calif. — New chips coming from Qualcomm and a startup rival show that there’s plenty of work yet to do to make 5G networks live up to their hype.

For handsets, Qualcomm announced a more integrated 5G modem, an optimized RF front-end (RFFE) module for millimeter-wave bands, and a handful of supporting parts. Startup Movandi said that it is also working on a mmWave front end for handsets and announced a device to optimize 5G links across many use cases.

The chips come at a time when operators say that they are still in the early phase of a slow buildout of 5G networks. Work on mmWave signals is the most challenging aspect of the work.

“Just two to three years ago, there was so much skepticism about mmWave,” said Maryam Rofougaran, a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Movandi. “From early trials, [operators] realized it can work, but they are not getting all they would like. There is room for improvement, especially to deploy 5G cheaply in a wide variety of places.”

The startup is mainly focused on infrastructure gear such as base stations and home receivers. That said, it has taped out a version of its RFFE for smartphones. “Realistically, the market [for 5G mmWave handsets] is not ready for meaningful volumes until 2020 or 2021,” said Rofougaran.

Qualcomm showed first-generation 5G smartphones and home gateways in December using its X50 modem and mmWave module. Today, it announced updates of both products.

The X55 is the company’s first baseband to support all key 5G features, including standalone (SA) and non-standalone operation as well as both FDD and TDD techniques. It also supports LTE and legacy cellular links. The X50 did not support SA or FDD or LTE.

Over 5G networks, the X55 delivers up to 7 Gbits/s down and 3 Gbits/s up. Over Category 22 LTE, it hits up to 2.5 Gbits/s. The 7-nm chip is sampling now and also supports 100-MHz envelope tracking and adaptive antenna tuning for 5G sub-6-GHz nets.

Qualcomm Chip The QTM is thinner than 8 mm, and the X55 handles both 5G and LTE. (Image: Qualcomm)

The X55 is likely the second of three 5G chips that Qualcomm will release within 12 months in its efforts to lead the field. Analysts expect that Qualcomm will release early next year an integrated apps processor with a 5G modem.

The X50 targets premium smartphones — typically paired with a Snapdragon 855 that sports an integrated LTE modem — and snagged more than 30 design wins, Qualcomm claims. The first handsets using the X50 are expected to emerge at Mobile World Congress later this month. Handsets using the X55 will be available before the end of the year, Qualcomm said.

Given that supports LTE and 5G, the X55 is Qualcomm’s first 5G modem suitable for embedded devices. It can also be used in China where operators are expected to start services with SA, skipping the non-standalone mode that uses LTE as a control network.

In addition, Qualcomm announced the QTM525, a new version of its mmWave RFFE module. It is longer but thinner than the company’s first module and adds support for 26-GHz bands to the prior part’s support for 28 and 39 GHz.

The company is using the shift to 5G to expand its related business in RF in the face of rivals such as Broadcom, Qorvo, and Skyworks who are initially targeting sub-6-GHz 5G handsets. Qualcomm also announced the QET6100, a 100-MHz envelope tracker solution, the QAT3555 5G adaptive antenna tuner, and a family of integrated 5G/4G power amplifier and diversity modules.

Startup preps active repeater for 5G mmWave

Next week’s Mobile World Congress will probably be the first opportunity to gauge how much of a lead Qualcomm has in 5G. Several handsets using its X50 modem are expected to emerge along with whatever giants Huawei and Samsung may have planned using their own chips.

Intel announced recently that it plans a 5G chip for base stations called Snow Ridge. The chip, along with Intel’s delayed 5G baseband for handsets, the XMN 8165, will ship in the second half of the year. Mediatek is said to have also delayed release of its first 5G modem.

Huawei and Samsung are said to also be aggressively working on their own cellular RF front ends. However, they would be unlikely to announce such parts given that they would be focused on use only in their own handsets.

Qualcomm’s early move to mmWave potentially disrupts RF rivals such as Broadcom, Qorvo, and Skyworks even though it also challenged end users such as AT&T and Verizon. The mmWave bands also provide bandwidth to deliver the highest data rates — a traditional selling point — albeit at shorter distances.

“RFFE modules will completely change with mmWave,” said Rofougaran of Movandi.

The startup announced in mid-2017 its BeamX modules for base stations and other gear. The relatively large components have been tested by operators and OEMs but are not yet ready for deployment, and Movandi listed no customers for them in a press statement.

Meanwhile, “we have been engaged with a couple of critical mobile [handset] vendors and we have a good understanding of what’s needed and taped out a chip that addresses their size and power [requirements], and it’s better than what I’ve seen out there,” she said, in an oblique reference to the Qualcomm module.

Movandi’s next step is a kind of advanced active repeater that helps complete mmWave links. The BeamXR uses some new algorithms and more digital processing to overcome 5G mmWave challenges getting signals around buildings, through trees, or otherwise dealing with a lack of line of sight.

The BeamXR aims to fill in coverage or boost capacity for operators without adding the thousands of dollars to buy and deploy another small-cell base station. Its potential use includes residences with fixed-wireless access as well as indoor access for multiple handset users in cafes, malls, or offices.

The product is sampling in a prototype form now supporting 28 and 39 GHz. A next-generation version also will support 24- and 26-GHz bands. The startup hopes to have versions for commercial use in production before the end of the year.

NXP said it will work with Movandi, pairing its Layerscape SoCs and 5G modems with the startups mmwave front-end for applications such as smart homes, self-driving cars and future mobile cloud-based services.