May 4, 2021
Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.
The 5G rollout is now in full swing bringing more capacity, faster speeds, and lower latency than previous generations of cellular network technologies.
Spectrum is the lifeblood of wireless communications, and 5G is designed to operate across all spectrum bands. Spectrum is generally partitioned into three main ranges of frequencies, each requiring specific antenna designs: low band (1 GHz and below), mid band (1 to 7 GHz), and high band (24 GHz and above). The high band, also known as mmWave, is arguably the most fascinating due to its ultra-wide bandwidth opportunity, and we have overcome the technical challenges to make it work in mobile environments.
In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the challenges, benefits, and how technology from Qualcomm Technologies allows OEMs and developers to take advantage of 5G mmWave.
Challenges and benefits of very high frequency communication
The name mmWave is short for millimeter wave and comes from the wavelengths in these high-frequency bands being measured in millimeters (i.e., peak-to-peak). Investigation into mmWave stretches as far back as 1894 when Indian physicist Jagadish Chandra Bose’s experiments showed transmission and reception of electromagnetic waves at 60 GHz.
Until recently, radio spectrums used for cellular technology were limited to lower frequencies because of their ability to travel relatively far and penetrate objects, key characteristics ideal for wide-area communications. However, the need to avoid interference in lower frequencies along with their allocation to existing cellular and non-cellular legacy applications (e.g., TV, defense, etc.) have been driving the quest to make use of ever-higher frequencies in cellular communications where there is also more abundant bandwidth.
Due to the relatively short propagation characteristics of very-high frequencies, mmWave was once generally considered unusable for general-purpose mobile networks. Uses were found in special applications like scientific research, security (e.g., airport security scanners), and military. However, the constant increase in the demand for wireless data and the abundant spectrum available in high bands made the pursuit of mmWave a worthwhile effort for the fifth generation of cellular communications.
A key benefit of high frequencies is their capability to deliver high, multi-Gbps speeds. These speeds allow for ultrafast data transfers that rival, and sometimes exceed, those provided through leading terrestrial broadband technologies such as fiber. Additionally, it’s easier to provide a high level of performance by deploying cellular networks to rural locations where running terrestrial connections to the last mile could be too expensive. Instead, broadband connections like fiber can be run to the rural community, while 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) can deliver mmWave service directly to the homes and businesses of that community.
A side benefit of having higher propagation loss is its ability for better frequency reuse, providing a natural isolation between deployments (e.g., outdoor vs. indoor). In addition to more available spectrum bandwidth in these higher bands, this also opens up much more network capacity, especially in smaller areas and indoor spaces, to handle more users at high speeds.
The 5G Ecosystem that supports mmWave
Overcoming such challenges has been a key focus for Qualcomm Technologies in the development of 5G. One breakthrough was beamforming, which uses a large number of antenna elements to focus energy in one direction using a narrow beam, which results in higher throughput and longer range. Another is the use of beam tracking and scanning techniques that allow for a robust mobile connection for mobile devices, even when it moves out of line-of-sight (i.e., signals can bounce off surfaces and still maintain the connections).
Our first 5G product, the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G Modem-RF System introduced in 2016, is backed by the Qualcomm QTM052 mmWave antenna module. The system also combines 5G transceivers, power management, and RF front-end components, including power amplification and a phased-antenna array to focus mmWave signals for beamforming. This was a key breakthrough because it made the technology small enough for use in mobile devices like smartphones.
We recently announced our first data call using 5G mmWave and sub-6 GHz aggregation inside a smartphone form-factor device. This call showcased how 5G can seamlessly utilize sub-6 GHz and mmWave spectrum to provide super-fast, low-latency mobile connectivity, combing the best attributes of the sub-6 GHz (i.e., wide-area coverage) and mmWave (i.e., extreme bandwidth) bands. As noted in the announcement: “Combining different types of radio spectrum will enable mobile 5G devices to wirelessly achieve wired broadband-class speeds, even in challenging conditions such as crowded venues and transit hubs, in addition to powering robust 5G fixed wireless access services in homes and small businesses.”
mmWave can deliver new and enhanced experiences
While the speeds and other benefits of mmWave are exciting, it’s really their convergence with adjacent technologies like AI/ML, XR, etc., that can help create new mobile experiences, benefiting OEMs, developers, and users.
For example, 5G mmWave can provide the ultra-low latency needed for power next-generation, more immersive boundless XR experiences, allowing the XR glasses to establish fiber-like connectivity with an edge-cloud server that hosts and processes the content.
In a transportation hub like an airport concourse, small cells and macro sites can provide high-bandwidth, mmWave performance. Security cameras can stream 4K video via mmWave to edge-cloud servers, which can analyze the streams in real time, looking for overcrowding or identifying individuals.
Mobile eSports events backed by mmWave will now have the capacity to support a large number of devices ranging from those used by the gamers to those in the audience who are streaming the action.
For additional examples, check out What new indoor opportunities will 5G NR mmWave bring?
Powering devices that can provide such experiences using mmWave require powerful yet energy-efficient processors. Below are some of our latest compute devices that work with our 5G product ecosystem to provide experiences with mmWave speeds:
All of the platforms listed above are Snapdragon-based devices. This means that application developers can not only take advantage of mmWave speeds for their applications but can also use our rich set of tools and SDKs like the Qualcomm Neural Processing SDK for artificial intelligence (AI), Snapdragon Profiler, Snapdragon Power Optimization SDK, and others. For more information, see the Software link at the top of QDN website.
5G mmWave opens up a wide range of new possibilities, and thanks to Qualcomm Technologies’ technology breakthroughs, it is already supporting smartphones, data cards, fixed-wireless CPEs, and many other types of devices.
For additional information about 5G and mmWave, be sure to check out our 5G mmWave Technology Hub.