Qualcomm Unveils a More Advanced 5G Modem and New RF Filtering Tech

Qualcomm is taking the wraps off a new 5G modem and millimeter-wave antenna module, as well as intriguing RF filtering technology that could have many applications.
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Qualcomm  (QCOM) - Get Report is intent on holding onto the technology lead it has opened up in the 5G modem market.

On Tuesday morning, Qualcomm unveiled its third-gen 5G modem, the Snapdragon X60. The X60 is expected to begin sampling this quarter, and to begin appearing inside of 5G phones in early 2021.

Relative to the second-gen Snapdragon X55, which was unveiled a year ago and is being designed into many of this year’s high-end 5G phones, the X60’s advantages include the following:

  1. It supports a technique known as carrier aggregation (widely used by 4G networks) to boost 5G speeds and spectrum efficiency. 5G carrier aggregation is supported both for spectrum blocks on traditional, sub-6GHz, spectrum bands -- Qualcomm claims this can double sub-6 speeds -- and for blocks split between sub-6 spectrum and higher-frequency, millimeter-wave (mmWave) bands.
  2. It has better power efficiency, thanks in part to its use of a 5-nanometer (5nm) manufacturing process rather than the 7nm process used by the X55. Qualcomm declined to say who its manufacturing partner is, but Taiwan Semiconductor  (TSM) - Get Report, which has promised to start volume production for its first 5nm process in the first half of 2020, is a strong possibility. (Update: A Reuters report indicates that Samsung will manufacture at least some X60 units, while also indicating that TSMC will handle some of Qualcomm's 5nm modem production).
  3. It can handle voice calls on networks supporting the 5G NR air interface, which in turn paves the way for 5G networks to be run on a standalone basis.

The X60’s peak download and upload speeds (7.5Gbps and 3Gbps, respectively) are similar to those of the X55. However, its support for carrier aggregation should often enable higher real-life speeds.

And interestingly, a Qualcomm spokesperson said the company has the flexibility to provide the X60 either as a discrete (standalone) chip or as a solution that's integrated with an app processor in a system-on-chip (SoC) solution. This raises the possibility that the X60 -- unlike the X55, which is sold as a discrete chip that can be paired with a processor such as Qualcomm's recently-launched Snapdragon 865 flagship SoC -- will be part of a future flagship SoC. 

Support for mmWave, which can deliver very high speeds over short distances, remains an important selling point for Qualcomm when fighting for design wins against Taiwan’s MediaTek, whose first 5G modems only support sub-6 bands. While Chinese and European carriers are only deploying 5G in sub-6 bands for now, U.S., South Korean and Japanese carriers are using both sub-6 and mmWave bands.

Samsung’s recently-launched Exynos 5123 5G modem does support mmWave. However, Samsung is using the Snapdragon X55 (along with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 865 processor) in Galaxy S20 phones sold in markets where mmWave support is needed (including Samsung’s home market of South Korea).

Qualcomm’s currently-dominant position in the nascent market for mmWave 5G antenna modules might have had something to do with Samsung’s decision. Here, Qualcomm is hoping the QTM535, a third-gen mmWave antenna module that’s also being unveiled today, will help it maintain its position.

Relative to the second-gen QTM525 module, Qualcomm asserts the QTM535 is both more compact (enabling thinner phones) and delivers higher performance. The module was built to work with the Snapdragon X60 -- Qualcomm has long argued that its ability to offer end-to-end, modem-to-antenna, chip solutions is a bigger strength with 5G phones -- and is also expected to begin sampling this quarter.

Notably, the QTM535 is being revealed just a few days after Fast Company reported that Apple  (AAPL) - Get Report, which is expected to use the Snapdragon X55 within its fall 2020 iPhones, “balked” at using the QTM525 “because it doesn’t fit into the sleek industrial design” Apple wanted for its new iPhones. In line with some prior reports, Fast Company says that Apple is developing its own mmWave antenna module.

The QTM535 is also being revealed less than two weeks after it was learned the EU is probing Qualcomm’s alleged tying of the sale of RF front-end (RFFE) chips to the sale of 5G modems. Qualcomm said it’s complying with an EU request for information.

In addition to the the X60 and QTM535, Qualcomm is unveiling an RF filter technology (referred to as ultraSAW) that it asserts can enable surface acoustic wave (SAW) RF filters to deliver performance that’s competitive with that of costlier bulk acoustic wave (BAW) filters in frequency bands ranging from 600MHz to 2.7GHz. In addition to cellular RFFE products, Qualcomm says ultraSAW can be used by Wi-Fi and GPS radios.

“Flagship” OEM devices featuring Qualcomm chips that leverage ultraSAW are promised to begin arriving in the second half of 2020. Broadcom  (AVGO) - Get Report, which has reportedly put its RF chip unit on the block, has historically been a top supplier of BAW filters and power amplifiers that rely on them, while Skyworks  (SWKS) - Get Report has been a top provider of SAW solutions.