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Qualcomm's new chips fix a major problem for 5G phones

The chipmaker has managed to shrink its superfast network technology down enough to fit in smartphones.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Qualcomm has solved a big problem for a certain variation of 5G: getting the chips small enough to fit in handheld devices.

On Monday, Qualcomm unveiled its new QTM052 millimeter wave and QPM56xx sub-6GHz radio frequency antenna module families. They work alongside the company's Snapdragon X50 5G to bring superfast network speeds to smartphones. The modules will let phone makers cover the gamut of 5G airwaves, including the shorter-range but faster millimeter wave spectrum and the more reliable but slower sub-6GHz airwaves.

The modules will show up in mobile hotspots later this year and in smartphones in the first half of 2019. The potential peak download speed could be up to 5Gbps for the millimeter wave variant, though the more realistic speed you'll see in phones is closer to 1.4Gbps, Qualcomm said. That's much faster than today's 4G, which is about 70Mbps, and even faster than the sub-6GHz's expected speeds of 400Mbps to 500Mbps, the company noted.

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"This is a bona fide breakthrough," Sherif Hanna, Qualcomm's director of product marketing, said in an interview ahead of the news. "The payoff for using millimeter wave, especially in densely populated areas, is huge."

5G, the next generation of cellular technology, is expected to significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It can go 10 to 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 take seconds to download a full TV season, and doctors will be able to perform remote surgeries in real time.

All cellular networks send data over the air, with standard networks using spectrum in lower-frequency bands like 700 megahertz. Generally, the higher the band or frequency, the higher the speed you can achieve. The promise of 5G is that it can use higher-frequency bands, called millimeter wave, to send data faster than ever before. Those signals operate on frequencies of 24GHz or higher, compared with the 600MHz to 5.8GHz used for 4G today.

A big deal in a small package

Getting those ultrafast speeds using millimeter wave spectrum comes with some problems. The signal can travel only short ranges; it bounces off hard surfaces: and it has trouble moving around corners or past things like trees. It can reach download speeds of up to 5 Gbps, Qualcomm says, but simply holding your hand over the antennas on the phone blocks the signal. The lower-frequency 600MHz spectrum that also can be used for 5G doesn't have those problems, but it's not nearly as fast or able to handle as much capacity as millimeter wave.

It's been tough for companies to make chips that are both small enough to fit in phones and that can focus the millimeter-wave spectrum so it can travel longer distances.  

Qualcomm's initial 5G modem and millimeter wave antennas, which it showed off in a YouTube video in early 2017, were so large, they had to be wheeled around on a cart. And Intel, one of Qualcomm's chief rivals for upcoming 5G chips, in February at Mobile World Congress displayed a concept 5G PC that had two kickstands to hold the 5G technology, something that would be too large for mobile phones.

But Qualcomm has now shrunk its technology significantly -- so much so that it can finally appear in smartphones.

"The common consensus was ... it was impossible to get millimeter wave to work in mobile," Hanna said. But Qualcomm's new modules are "a technological breakthrough that will enable a new generation of networks that deliver internet speeds never possible over wireless before."

Qualcomm declined to specify the dimensions of the new modules, but CNET's comparison holding one showed them to be about as wide as the iPhone X is deep, which is 7.7 millimeters. Qualcomm has a slightly narrower version, meaning phone makers could pack them into even thinner phones.

The company, though, says the size of the modules doesn't dictate the thickness of phones. In even thinner devices, or in phones with curved edges, the modules can be tilted slightly to fit better in the smaller package.

Each module has about eight to 12 antennas, and phone makers likely would embed three of the modules in their devices (though the X50 modem could handle up to four). They'd spread the chips out across the device so the phone could always could get a signal from one if the others were covered by a hand.

"You could have one on the side, one on the top and then maybe one on the other side," Hanna said. "It will vary from phone to phone."

With 4G technology, the phone antennas radiate the signal out to a cell tower sort of like a floodlight. For millimeter wave, that method would end up sending the signal nowhere. Normally, the 5G device would have to have line-of-sight to a cell tower with no other buildings or even trees in the way. But with Qualcomm's new modules, the signals are focused by a process called beam forming, which lets the signal travel up to 200 meters and even curve around buildings, Qualcomm said.

The X50 modem receives data from only one module at a time, but it's simultaneously monitoring the other modules for backups. If you're getting data from a module on one side of the phone and someone walks in front of you and blocks the beam, the modem will instantly latch onto the signal from another module.

Qualcomm shipped samples of the modules to its customers earlier this month. 

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