Industry Voices—Lee: Qualcomm ushers in standalone 5G and 5nm with Snapdragon X60


Leonard Lee

With Release 16 of the 3GPP 5G standards slated to be frozen next month and completed in June of 2020, the mobile industry is poised to embrace Standalone (SA) 5G this year. 

Qualcomm, a leader in 5G technology, introduced on Tuesday their third-generation modem-RF system, Snapdragon X60 which comes at an opportune time in the evolutionary timeline of 5G standards and marks a thoughtful pivot in Qualcomm's RFFE (Radio Frequency Front End) strategy.

Technically, the X60 system is a world's first with 5 nanometer 5G baseband that is able to handle the gamut of spectrum across the mmWave (millimeter wave) and sub-6 (frequencies below 6GHz) bands on FDD (Frequency Division Duplexing) and TDD (Time Division Duplexing) networks. The system also supports mmWave-sub 6 carrier aggregation which make devices fitted with X60 adaptable, extensible and ready to fully support new 5G Standalone networks that are expected to start rolling out toward the end of 2020.

According to Reuters, TSMC will be fabricating the new X60 modem alongside Samsung as both companies ramp up their 5nm production capacity to meet the demand for the next generation of SOCs and 5G modems. The move from 7nm will make the X60 a more compact and power efficient successor to the first generation X50 and X55 modems that Qualcomm released last year.

The X60 system also features the new QTM535 mmWave antenna module which can enable up to 7.5 gigabits per second download speeds and 3 gigabits per second upload speeds. These performance specs match those of last year's X55 system but are delivered in a smaller RFFE footprint allowing for sleeker smartphone designs.

The previous iterations of Qualcomm's modem-RF systems seemed to be focused on the device, meaning get devices out that are able to connect to early 5G networks. With X55 and Qualcomm's Series 8, 7 and 6 5G Mobile Platforms, that agenda expanded beyond premium handsets to mid-tier models with the goal of driving broader and faster adoption of 5G.

With X60, Qualcomm seems to be shifting its focus onto the operator and creating value opportunities that will drive investment in 5G networks while enabling them to get more out of their existing spectrum holdings through key benefits expected of Standalone 5G networks, such as support for a broad range of carrier aggregation schemes. Qualcomm states that the X60 is geared toward unlocking the value of SA 5G NR (New Radio) with a RFFE that supports "any key spectrum band, mode or combination, along with 5G Voice-over-NR (VoNR) capabilities."

Snapdragon X60 presents a number of interesting opportunities for operators to enhance their business cases to transition from a LTE or Nonstandalone (NSA) 5G network to a Standalone 5G network. Key value drivers that are top of mind for mobile network operators as well as their customers are quality of service and coverage. In these regards, X60's broad support of key 5G spectrum, carrier aggregation across mmWave, sub-6 spectrum as FDD and TDD, and DSS (Dynamic Spectrum Sharing), operators will have a greatly expanded palette of strategies to enhance service quality, capacity and coverage on top of a SA 5G NR network.

Qualcomm also announced their new ultraSAW (ultra Surface Acoustic Wave) filter technology that the company claims will dramatically improve signal processing and radio performance over BAW (Bulk Acoustic Wave) filters in the sub-2.7 GH frequency range. The new ultraSAW offering also presents a lower cost for performance which Qualcomm is integrating across Qualcomm's RFFE products and Snapdragon 5G modem-RF systems.

According to Qualcomm, we can expect to see the first devices with the Snapdragon X60 system hit the market in the early half of 2021. The company is scheduled to ship samples of Snapdragon X60 and QTM535 to OEMs before the end of the first quarter of 2020. Devices with the new X60 are expected to be on the premium end to start. 

RELATED: Qualcomm launches Snapdragon X60 with mmWave and sub-6 band aggregation

It will be interesting to see how quickly Qualcomm will propagate X60 through their Snapdragon Mobile Platform portfolio. A fast growing installed base of X60-equipped devices could very well help front-running operators accelerate and scale the benefit of Standalone 5G and get operators sitting on the 5G sidelines to consider investing in the next generation mobile network. It will also help drive investment in the 5nm process node as next-generation mobile chipsets and 5G modems push demand into 2020 and beyond.

Leonard Lee is the founder and managing director of neXt Curve, a research advisory firm focused on Information and Communication industry and technology research. He has worked as an executive consultant and industry analyst at Gartner, IBM, PwC and EY and has advised leading companies globally on competitive strategy, product and service innovation and business transformation. Follow Leonard on LinkedIn:

“Industry Voices” are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.