5G chipmaker aims for China phone wins and an edge on Qualcomm

MediaTek's first chip that integrates 5G with the brains of a smartphone will appear in devices in the first quarter of 2020.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read
In this photo illustration a 5G logo seen displayed on a

Smartphones using MediaTek's 5G integrated chip will arrive early in 2020.

Getty Images

Qualcomm's about to see more competition in the 5G chip market. 

Taiwan-based MediaTek said late Tuesday it's built its first processor that integrates the brains of a device on the same chip as 5G, 4G and other wireless connectivity, which should improve the battery life of devices. The company's biggest customers will get samples in the third quarter of this year, and the first commercial handsets with the processor will launch in the first quarter of 2020. 

Watch this: See Galaxy S10 5G's jaw-dropping real-world speeds

Qualcomm leads the industry when it comes to 5G connectivity chips, with virtually all high-end 5G Android phones using its modems this year. Samsung, OnePlus, Oppo and Xiaomi all have unveiled devices based on Qualcomm's processors. Huawei, Samsung and MediaTek are the only other companies building 5G modems -- and with Huawei and Samsung largely keeping their modems for their own devices, it's only MediaTek that truly competes with Qualcomm in the broader 5G handset chip market. 

At least initially, MediaTek's 5G chip will largely appear in Chinese phones, said Finnbar Moynihan, MediaTek's vice president of corporate sales and business development in the Americas and Europe. The company's technology taps into only sub-6GHz airwaves, the slower but more reliable flavor of 5G favored by T-Mobile in the US and most carriers in Europe and Asia. In the US, Verizon's and AT&T's initial 5G networks use the shorter-range but faster millimeter wave spectrum, which means phones on those networks today require Qualcomm 5G modems. 

"To launch in markets like Europe and North America, there's a longer qualification cycle that takes a couple of extra months," Moynihan said in an interview ahead of the chip announcement. "We expect [the 5G chip] to come to other regions in the middle ... or second half of next year."

He added that while MediaTek doesn't yet have a 5G chip that taps into millimeter wave spectrum, it's working on the technology and will likely share information "maybe in the next year."

For MediaTek, its new processor marks a push into higher-end phones and an effort to be at the forefront of the 5G market. The company has lagged behind Qualcomm in moving to faster modem speeds in the past, and most of its customers have focused on phones aimed more at midrange prices. Its new chipset, though, will be geared at pricey, high-end smartphones.

"2020 is really going to be the year the volume of 5G devices take off on a more global scale," Moynihan said. "We're going to be right there at the start of it with devices launching next year."

From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right now

See all photos

Moynihan noted that in previous cellular transitions, like the moves from 2G to 3G and from 3G to 4G, there have been disruptions in the winners and losers for chips and handsets. MediaTek believes its efforts to invest early in 5G will help it be "right there at the start of when this will take off," he said.

"It allows MediaTek an opportunity to reposition a bit and focus on higher-tier devices where we were not so successful with 4G in the past," Moynihan said. 

5G promises to significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It can run between 10 and 100 times faster than your typical cellular connection today, and even quicker than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. It'll also boost how fast a device will connect to the network with speeds as quick as a millisecond to start your download or upload. 


MediaTek's 5G chip will compete with offerings from Qualcomm.


Integrating a modem with an application processor -- the brains of a device -- reduces power consumption and the amount of space the chips take up in a device, letting phones be even sleeker than before or pack in even larger batteries. Having an integrated chip also enables device makers to quickly develop phones for more 5G networks in the world. And it makes 5G handsets cheaper for consumers.

MediaTek's unnamed 5G chip uses 7nm technology and includes the company's Helio M70 5G modem. The chip has download speeds up to 4.7 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 2.5 Gbps. It can run on cellular networks from 2G to 5G, and it will use Arm's new Cortex-A77 CPU and Mali-G77 graphics technology. MediaTek plans to unveil full specifications of the chip in the coming months.