When it comes to important new tech trends, there always seems to be one element that just doesn’t get the credit it deserves. In the world of mobile communications and 5G, this little-known and misunderstood component is undoubtedly the modem.
Located at the very heart of our connected devices, the modem (short for modulator-demodulator) and its accompanying RF (radio frequency) components are what enable the high-speed wireless data links we have all become so dependent on.
What most people don’t realize is that advancements in modern technology are what really bring the important capabilities of modern cellular networks to life. With the recent launch of industry leader Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X35, X72 and X75 RF-modem systems (just ahead of the major telecommunications industry-focused trade show Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain), this principle no longer applies. has never been so true.
As great as the specs and capabilities of these new chips seem to be – and I’ll get to that in a moment – what’s even more important is that collectively they extend the reach and capabilities of existing 5G networks. From enabling 5G connectivity in IoT and wearable devices (which until now have been locked out of the 5G game) with the X35 to paving the way to advanced next-generation 5G networks with The X75, these new Qualcomm modems represent valuable, but often overlooked, advances towards 5G applications. Along the way, they’re also integrating smart new technologies that will improve the performance of many 5G devices on existing networks when they hit the market later this year.
What’s interesting about both the X35 and X75 is that they take advantage of some of the more recent additions to the latest release documents for the Telecommunications Industry Standard Organization (3GPP), but they do so at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. (For more on 3GPP and its versions, see “The Evolution of 5G.”)
In the case of the X35, Qualcomm is taking advantage of a new feature introduced in version 17 which is technically called NR Light, but is often, very unfortunately, referred to as RedCap (short for Reduced Capability – arguably one of the worst names for a technical feature never created). The original 5G specification is primarily performance-oriented, and its NR (New Radio) access technology has been optimized to deliver the fastest possible performance over the wireless network, regardless of complexity and cost. which inevitably ensue.
As the name suggests, NR Light is meant to be a simplified version of this, allowing modems that support it to be less complex, less power-hungry, and less expensive. The X35 is the first modem to support NR Light/RedCap and therefore it will be possible to use it in the millions of power and cost sensitive devices that currently cannot support a modem. Full 5G. This means that wearable devices like smartwatches as well as the countless multitude of IoT devices – which have, at best, included 4G/LTE (or even 2G/3G) – will finally be able to make the jump to 5G.
Unsurprisingly, this will deliver performance and wireless throughput benefits, but more importantly, it will eventually enable more robust 5G networks for all devices. The reason for this is that once these devices can be converted to work on 5G networks, the legacy legacy networks (from 2G to 4G) can be turned off, which has recently happened with 3G here in the US . Then the frequencies they used can be “repurposed” (or essentially recycled) for use on 5G networks. It won’t happen overnight, of course, but the radio frequency spectrum is so valuable (and so scarce) that these kinds of reuse scenarios are going to become an increasingly important way to add more frequencies and, hence, better service to 5G networks.
For the general-purpose X75 modem (and to some extent the X72, which is only for devices like mobile hotspots), Qualcomm is essentially moving in the opposite direction of performance. It is the first modem to support the critical new technologies of version 18, still under development, which should form the basis of what is called 5G Advanced. This next-gen version of 5G isn’t expected to become a reality until the middle of the decade (much like 4G Advanced didn’t arrive until the mid-2010s), but it’s focused on delivering an even better, faster and more reliable. network performance, among other things.
With the X75, Qualcomm is essentially providing future-proofing for its modems as well as smartphones, PCs, tablets, cars, fixed wireless access (FWA) routers, and many other devices it should be integrated into. At the same time, the X75 also adds additional enhancements that will help performance and consistency over existing 5G networks, while providing the basics for satellite connectivity. In particular, the X75 can now combine a greater number and variety of different 5G frequency bands and is smarter about how to use those bands most efficiently. The built-in Qualcomm 5G AI Gen 2 processor in the X75, for example, can improve performance in harsh environments such as parking lots, elevators, subways, etc., as well as increase the accuracy of location data by performing a fusion of sensors with inputs from the many types of sensors that are now built into products such as smartphones.
The net result of all of this should be faster download speeds in more places as well as more accurate and reliable information about a given device’s location, a capability that should lead to better mapping and other location-based services. Even better, due to the chip’s new architecture combining mmWave and Sub-6 transceivers into a single component, it should offer these capabilities at a lower price point than its predecessor.
While the progress of Qualcomm’s latest modems is impressive, and the “world’s first” claims for the X35 and X75 are fine feathers in the company’s hat, in many ways they are unsurprising. The company has been and continues to be a leader in the development of critical technologies and intellectual property that make their way into 3GPP global standards. So seeing Qualcomm be the first to roll them out probably won’t come as a shock to many. Still, it’s good to see that despite some of the disappointment with current 5G deployments, the critical technologies and key components (like modems!) that underpin them continue to evolve.
Disclosure: TECHanalysis Research is a market research and consulting company in the technology sector and, like all companies in this field, works with many technology providers as clients, some of which can be listed in this article.
Forbes columnist Bob O’Donnell is president and chief analyst of TECHanalysis Researcha market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and the professional financial community.