OnQ Blog

Enabling the ecosystem: Unlocking 5G’s potential with breakthrough antenna tech

Qualcomm Technologies and Vivo Communication Technology Co., Ltd. integrate new 5G millimeter wave technologies with sub-6 GHz in a commercial form factor

For over 30 years, Qualcomm inventions have helped the mobile ecosystem innovate and grow globally, by opening access to our innovation engine. Sometimes, however, access alone is not enough when the ecosystem is developing and deploying the most advanced and often, complex technologies. In such cases, Qualcomm helps support the ecosystem by performing a number of behind-the-scenes activities not visible to the general public and oftentimes, the industry itself. One such activity is the recent 5G antenna collaboration with Vivo — a leading Chinese handset OEM and 5G Pioneer Initiative participant.

Understanding the “Black Magic” of antenna tech

To understand why this collaboration with Vivo signals a breakthrough, it’s important to know the unique challenges RF designers face. It’s been said that RF designers must use some sort of “black magic” to solve seemingly impossible radio performance and interference challenges. 

Consider what’s inside today’s smartphones: multiple radios — cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC — each running on dozens of frequencies, with strict power and safety requirements, in very thin designs, often made of metal with hundreds of potentially interfering components packed inside. Then consider the business pressures — intense time-to-market and development cost pressures, often with only one or two prototype builds. It’s a daunting challenge. Make a poor decision regarding the antenna design, and the product can be delayed for weeks or months, costing millions of dollars.

While it’s hardly “black magic,” antenna design does require a depth of understanding across multiple disciplines — electromagnetics, mathematics, circuit design, PCB layout design, packaging, mechanical implementation, programming — and the ability to see the bigger, systems-level picture. When a new technology, such as 5G mmWave, is introduced into the complex system that wireless is, knowing the dependencies and relationships between the many interacting parts is essential. The ability to solve such systems-level problems is core to our DNA — from the day we were founded to today —it’s why we lead in 5G and why so many in the industry collaborate with us.

mmWave – a paradigm shift in wireless design

5G opens up mmWave technologies, bringing a new paradigm of wireless design for many applications — including mobile devices, industrial IoT, medical, and automotive areas. Compared to sub-6 GHz spectrum, one of the key advantages of mmWave is the wide bandwidth, enabling extreme speeds, improvements in latency, and capacity. However, sub-6 GHz technologies also play a critical role, allowing for flexible deployments with ubiquitous network coverage and a wide range of use cases. To get the full benefit of 5G, handsets should have both sub-6GHz and mmWave antenna systems coexisting in the same device. Eventually, both mmWave and sub-6 GHz are planned for deployment in every major region of the world, including some markets in 2019 and 2020.

From an antenna design perspective, sub-6 GHz technologies are fairly well understood, as they’re similar to what was used in previous 3G and 4G generations. However, mmWave technology is new, and the antenna design strategies are different. Sub-6GHz relies on single-element, low-gain, omni-directional antennas, while mmWave requires a narrow-beam, high-gain antenna system that consists of multiple radiators that are coherently combined. Integrating both technologies, while achieving strict performance requirements that many operators require, is a new challenge.

This is where Qualcomm brings significant value. As a pioneer in mmWave technology – we have been showing the world that it’s possible to use mmWave in a mobile handset. And our knowledge of the overall wireless system and understanding of global operator requirements add value to the ecosystem as they move towards implementation.

Collaboration with Vivo

Qualcomm engineers have been collaborating with Vivo for months on a design that integrates 28 GHz mmWave antenna arrays into a commercial form factor, which also uses sub-6 GHz technologies. They also conducted a number of radiated measurements at our antenna lab in San Diego to verify performance. This achievement, the demonstration of 5G mmW coexisting with sub-6 GHz in a commercial form factor, is groundbreaking work critical to the commercial launch of 5G.

This project is just one of many with key ecosystem players — all part of Qualcomm’s behind-the-scenes work to enable the ecosystem. In the coming months, we’ll be sharing more about this side of Qualcomm. 

These are exciting times at Qualcomm, as all these efforts, both seen and behind-the-scenes, are in an effort to help make 5G a commercial reality in 2019. Meanwhile, our systems-level research and ecosystem support efforts never stop. While we are helping the ecosystem with initial 5G deployments, we are also deeply contributing to the next evolution of 5G.

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