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MediaTek joins Qualcomm, Samsung in offering ultrafast 5G chips

Customers will be able to test out the Taiwanese company's first millimeter-wave modem, the M80, later this year.

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MediaTek's M80 modem combines super-fast millimeter-wave speeds with slower but more reliable sub-6 Ghz, a first for the Taiwanese chipset maker. 

MediaTek

MediaTek has joined Qualcomm and Samsung in offering ultrafast 5G connectivity for phones, PCs, robots and other devices. The Taiwanese chipmaker on Monday unveiled its new M80 modem, which includes millimeter-wave connectivity for the first time. 

For most of MediaTek's traditional markets, the absence of mmWave hasn't mattered. The technology is super fast but can only travel short distances, and it has largely only been installed in dense parts of cities. Instead, China, T-Mobile and most carriers around the world instead have rolled out sub-6Ghz 5G, which doesn't go as fast but is more reliable. But mmWave connectivity is required for phones on Verizon's 5G network, and more mmWave networks are being built around the world. 

By the time MediaTek's M80 modem is in devices, mmWave likely will be more in demand, especially for high-end phones. And it's quickly expanding into less expensive devices

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"We continue to focus on the high end ... so inevitably, millimeter wave will need to be integrated into those high end platforms as we go forward," Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of sales for MediaTek, said in an interview ahead of the news. And as the market moves "below those device price points, millimeter wave will become more and more of a requirement," he said. 

The M80 is capable of downloading data at up to 7.67 Gbps and uploading data as fast as 3.76 Gbps, edging out Qualcomm and Samsung's modem speeds. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 888, with its X60 modem, can download data at up to 7.5 Gbps and upload data at 3 Gbps. And Samsung's Exynos 2100 can handle maximum download speeds of 5.1 Gbps over lower-band 5G and download speeds of up to 7.35 Gbps over mmWave.

While MediaTek's new modem touts the fastest speeds, it likely won't be in devices until late this year, at the earliest. MediaTek hasn't specified when it will ship in products but said it's giving samples of the M80 to customers "later in 2021." And Qualcomm tends to unveil its newest modems early in the year, which means it may soon have an even faster offering for its customers. 

There are really only four companies in the world making 5G chips: Qualcomm, MediaTek, Samsung and Huawei. Samsung and Huawei largely only use their 5G chips in their own devices (and Huawei is facing a slow death because of US sanctions). Qualcomm supplied 5G modems for the vast majority of high-end phones last year, including Apple's iPhone 12 lineup. MediaTek, for its part, has predominantly provided modems to Asian phone-makers, something that helped it become the world's biggest smartphone chipset vendor for the first time ever in the third quarter, according to Counterpoint Research (though Qualcomm held the title as the biggest 5G chipset vendor). 

The coronavirus pandemic raised doubts early last year about how widespread 5G would become in 2020. Instead of slowing down 5G, the pandemic in some ways made it easier for carriers to expand their networks faster. In China, the government made 5G's rollout a priority, which helped China drive the global expansion of 5G in 2020. Out of last year's estimated 200 million 5G subscriptions, 175 million were expected to come from China, networking giant Ericsson said in November.

MmWave's expansion

5G promises to significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It can run 10 to 100 times faster than a typical cellular connection today, and 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. It's the most significant advance in mobile network technology since the introduction of 4G a decade ago, and it could have major implications for how we live.

It's the mmWave variant of 5G that's expected to have the biggest impact on our lives. It's blazing fast and has the potential to transform what we can do over the internet. But mmWave also is more finicky than sub-6 Ghz 5G connectivity. A tree or even a window between the tower and user could block the airwaves, as can a hand in the wrong place on a phone. 

Until January, only Qualcomm provided mmWave modems for devices, in part due to the technology's complexity. The connectivity commanded a premium when included in early devices because they require more antenna modules and technology spread around the device to make sure the signal isn't obstructed. But that's starting to change. Apple's iPhone 12 lineup included mmWave in all US models without costing extra. And Samsung's new Galaxy S2 also comes with mmWave in all US models, making it easier for consumers to use their devices on other carriers' networks. 

While MediaTek has benefited from soaring phone sales in China, it sees the shift to 5G as a way to break into the US handset market. In August, LG's $600 Velvet became the first smartphone to use MediaTek's processor -- the Dimensity 1000c -- in the US. In January, MediaTek unveiled its newest chipsets for high-end phones, the Dimensity 1200 and Dimensity 1100. They lack mmWave connectivity but will appear early this year in phones from Chinese vendors Oppo, realme, Vivo and Xiaomi.

Offering a mmWave modem will likely help MediaTek's push into US phones and help it expand into providing modems for 5G-connected PCs, hotspots, robots and other industrial uses.  

"The US market ... presents an interesting opportunity for MediaTek to grow from where we are today," Moynihan said. And "for us, 5G is also much more beyond smartphones."