Qualcomm Is Trying To Speed Up Current Mobile Networks Ahead of 5G

February 21, 2017, 12:49 PM UTC
Inside An Apple Inc. iPhone
A Qualcomm baseband processor sits inside an Apple iPhone 4s.
Brent Lewin—Bloomberg /Getty Images

Qualcomm announced its latest generation modem to increase smartphone connections to speeds faster than even some of the fastest home Internet connections.

The new X20, which will work on current 4G LTE networks all over the world, can reach a top speed of 1.2 gigabits per second—fast enough to download a typical high-definition movie file in 30 seconds. But to hit that top speed requires that wireless carriers use several cutting-edge techniques in their networks that are not yet commonly deployed. And the modem itself won’t be in phones on the market until the first half of next year.

Qualcomm’s move comes as the wireless industry focuses on overhauling networks to get ready for the next generation beyond 4G, known as 5G. But 5G is a few years away, so the industry is also seeking to squeeze the most out of the current infrastructure. The top speed of the X20 is 20% faster than Qualcomm’s top 4G LTE modem released last year, the X16.

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The move to 5G also comes as Intel (INTC) renews its efforts to compete with Qualcomm (QCOM) for mobile modem chips. Intel won a big chunk of business from Apple (AAPL) for the first time in the iPhone 7 and has extensive plans for chips with 5G capabilities as well. On Tuesday, Intel unveiled its latest modem for 4G LTE, which reaches only the 1 gigabit top speed of Qualcomm’s 2016 X16 product.

Intel may see a bigger opening after Apple sued Qualcomm last month, challenging its core business model of collecting royalty fees calculated on the value of an entire mobile device, not just the device’s communications chipset. Perhaps not surprisingly, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich took Apple’s side of the argument in an interview with Fortune on Sunday.

Consumers will be waiting a while before getting access to the new, super-high speeds. Last year’s top phones, like some versions of the iPhone 7, use the even older Qualcomm X12 model released in 2015, which has a top download speed of 600 Mbps. New models expected to be unveiled later this year by Samsung, Apple and others likely will have the X16.

The new X20 modem can combine regular, licensed airwave bands with transmissions in unlicensed bands that are also used for data, such as airwaves used for Wi-fi. That allows some wireless carriers in less developed countries that have fewer spectrum rights to also speed up LTE connections.

Only 16% of wireless carriers in the world have access to 60 MHz of spectrum, 64% have at least 20 MHz. The X20 modem can combine just 10 MHz of licensed spectrum with unlicensed airwaves to reach top speeds, putting the capability in reach of 90% of carriers, Qualcomm says.

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