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Understanding mmWave: Faster connectivity highways for 5G

Mobile devices are becoming more capable by the day. That’s the good news. The bad news: the more they can do and the more of them there are, the more traffic demands on mobile networks will soar. According to a report by Ericsson, last year North American smartphone users averaged 7.2GB of data per smartphone per month, and by 2023, usage is expected to increase by almost sevenfold. If data pathways were like freeways, picture I-805 at 9 a.m. (for non-San Diegans, just picture your worst morning commute).

5G, the next generation of wireless, must accommodate this growing demand on our networks. That means finding more usable spectrum. All wireless communication — radio, TV, GPS — travels over the air via radio frequency, or spectrum. It’s the lifeblood of connectivity.

More available spectrum for wireless data means more network capacity, which can translate to faster data rates and better user experiences such as AR-assisted furniture shopping or livestreaming exclusive content at major sporting events.

5G NR — the global standard for 5G networking — is designed not only for spectrum bands below 3 GHz, where most mobile communications happen today. It also makes use of mid bands between 3 GHz to 6 GHz (Sub-6) and also new classes of bands previously thought unsuitable for mobile communications, such as high bands above 24 GHz (mmWave).

By providing a unified design to make use of these bands, Qualcomm Technologies is supporting the use of more spectrum and unlocking the potential of 5G for these user experiences and more that we have yet to imagine.

In the first post in our new series on 5G NR, we explained how 5G will change life as we know it. Now, we’re digging a little deeper into 5G NR spectrum and mmWave and the technical breakthroughs Qualcomm Technologies has made along the way.

Understanding mmWave

5G NR is the first generation of wireless communication systems to use mmWave, making it possible to transfer data faster over mobile connections due to more bandwidth.

To understand how mmWave meets the increasing demand for better, faster connectivity and helps usher in the 5G era, think of the current spectrum bands like land in a crowded city. There are a lot of roads (which are mostly narrow) already built, and we can’t really build more because most of the land is already occupied. We need to find ways to accommodate more cars in unused space above the existing roadway. That much-needed space is the mmWave portion of the spectrum and a previously unused space where we can build new pathways for connectivity.

Mobilizing mmWave

The challenge with mmWave is that these waves don’t travel very far. They’re also easily blocked; just putting your hand over the antenna on your smartphone would obstruct the signal.

Engineers have been working diligently to overcome this issue by using an array of antennas for beamforming, which concentrates radio energy to extend the range. But this created another problem: How could such an array of antennas fit inside mobile devices? For these reasons, the industry consensus has been that mmWave would never work for mobile.

But at Qualcomm Technologies, we invent breakthrough technologies that transform how the world connects — and this often goes for what others say is impossible. Qualcomm Technologies engineered a solution to make mmWave a reality for mobile, using advanced beam technology.

We designed the QTM052 mmWave antenna module and sized it down to where it will fit on the tip of your index finger, or in the side bezel of a phone.

These modules are designed for adaptive beam forming, switching, and tracking. Smart, closed-loop algorithms determine the most promising signal paths between the user’s device and the network. Coupled with small cells (low-powered mobile base stations that extend coverage and have already incorporated Gigabit LTE), faster, more reliable mobile service with mmWave is possible.

At the other end of the spectrum: Sub-6 GHz

Another part of the spectrum that’s being used in 5G NR is sub-6 GHz, which includes the portion of spectrum lower than 6 GHz.

These bands are extremely effective at providing coverage and have capacity for a wide-range of 5G use cases. That means faster, more uniform data rates both outdoors and indoors for more users, simultaneously. While mmWave best accommodates dense urban areas and crowded indoor environments, sub-6 GHz tackles the part of the spectrum that makes broad 5G coverage possible. In addition to 5G, the Qualcomm RF module families bring sub-6 GHz to reality.

In the 5G era, sub-6 GHz will work in tandem with mmWave to power new user experiences across every aspect of our lives. LTE and Gigabit LTE will continue to provide ubiquitous coverage and essential services that complement initial 5G NR deployments.

By broadening the parts of the spectrum that can be accessed for 5G NR, Qualcomm Technologies is fueling a new mobile revolution aiming to further transform industries and enrich lives.

Next in our series on 5G NR, we’ll be exploring the importance of low latency.

Qualcomm QTM052 is a product of Qualcomm Technologies Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

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