World's first 5G chip will take future phones supersonic

Qualcomm's new processor, the X50, will appear in devices starting in early 2018 and promises to be 100 times faster than current wireless tech.

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
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Qualcomm has created the first 5G chip for phones and other devices.

Sarah Tew/CNET

5G may be in your phone sooner than you think.

Qualcomm on Monday unveiled the world's first 5G wireless chip, the Snapdragon X50 modem. It's initially aimed at both phones and gear like home wireless networks. And it should be in devices in the first half of 2018.

"5G is right around the corner," Sherif Hanna, Qualcomm staff manager of technical marketing, said in an interview.

The X50 represents the next baby step toward 5G, which is expected to be 100 times faster than our current wireless technology and 10 times speedier than what Google Fiber offers through a physical connection to the home. Typically, when a new wireless technology becomes available, it first shows up in standalone devices like wireless hotspots. But Qualcomm is already working on getting it into phones.

Unless you live in South Korea, you probably won't get to see the X50's power anytime soon. Qualcomm says the chip will likely appear first in phones on networks like Korea Telecom, in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The X50 processor also has some limitations. It only connects to 5G networks, so to hook up to an older 4G or 3G network, you'll need a second wireless chip. Qualcomm hopes phone makers will opt to pair the X50 with its Snapdragon line of processors that integrate the brains of the device with the wireless connectivity. Companies like LG and HTC use Qualcomm's Snapdragon line, but Apple does not.

When the industry moved from 3G technology to 4G LTE, the radio-based "air interface" looked different, but the technology used the same kind of wireless spectrum. That meant companies knew how 4G transmissions would operate in the real world. But 5G is completely different.

"The challenge of that is this is all extremely new," Hanna said.

5G uses very high frequency spectrum known as millimeter waves. They can carry large amounts of data and transfer signals with minimal delays. But signals travel only short distances and have difficult penetrating walls and going around corners, which makes designing 5G networks tricky.

Qualcomm and its handset and network partners hope the X50 chip will help them better understand how 5G will work. Then chipmaker will be able to release "a more complete version" of the technology in its future processors.

"In current devices, our modems support everything, all flavors of LTE, 3G and 2G," Hanna said. "That is the ultimate goal" for the 5G processors as well.

Along with the X50 news, Qualcomm said Australian network operator Telstra is rolling out a gigabit-class LTE network by the end of the year, while Netgear is releasing a hotspot that reaches LTE speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. Phones will be able to run on the higher speeds in 2017 as carriers upgrade their networks.

"We expect several gigabit LTE network launches next year," Hanna said.