On February 21 Qualcomm announced its second generation gigabit class modem in the form of the Snapdragon X20, a discrete (thin) modem solution capable of Cat 18 downlink speeds (1.2Gbps) and Cat 13 uplink speeds of (150Mbps). The new modem is a follow up to the X16 which was announced just over a year ago and is now found inside the Snapdragon 835 integrated modem/application processor which is due out in smartphones over the next several months. The X16 was the first cellular baseband which was capable of gigabit speeds and has been included in commercially available non-handset products such as mobile routers and hotspots.
Speeds of 1.2 Gbps are achieved through the use of up to 5x carrier aggregation across 12 spatial streams – the most of any available LTE-A Pro chipset on the market. With the X20 4x4 MIMO is possible on up to 3CA, up from only 2CA for the X16. The new modem leverages licensed assisted access (LAA) which reduces the licensed spectrum requirements to achieve gigabit class speeds to only 10 MHz utilizing up to 80 MHz of unlicensed spectrum. This is important as many operators around the globe lack the spectrum holdings to fully realize gigabit speeds with LTE alone. This 10 MHz requirement is down 50% from the previous generations 20 MHz requirement making it easier than ever for global operators to achieve gigabit speeds.
Other features of the new modem include dual SIM dual VoLTE where the second SIM of a device no longer has to rely on 2G or 3G technologies. Bother SIM are capable of ultra HD/HD voice and users will be able to choose a SIM for LTE data. The dual SIM/dual VoLTE feature is another step on the path for network operators to retire 2G and 3G spectrum across the globe.
The X20 is currently sampling and expected to make it in commercial devices by the first half of next year, although we aren’t likely to see it in a smartphone until it is integrated with an application processor like the follow on to the Snapdragon 835. Apple is currently the only major premium tier smartphone OEM which is known to leverage these thin modem designs, so the X20 will likely have a similar experience to the X16 finding its way into non-smartphone products like mobile routers and hotspots.
With the X20 Qualcomm remains at least a generation ahead of its competitors with its modem technology. However, competitors such as Intel and Samsung are not resting idle; with each developing their own modem products. Samsung is pursuing an integrated approach, while Intel is opting for the thin modem strategy after exiting the integrated application processor market last year, before its big win with the iPhone 7 was announced. Huawei (HiSilicon) is also developing its own modems and shouldn’t be underestimated either.
Two of the aforementioned competitors, Intel and HiSilicon have CDMA capabilities essentially eliminating that method of differentiation for Qualcomm after the two complete necessary operator certifications which can take longer than a year. With this potential Qualcomm’s continued investment in modems along the path to 5G is becoming more critical than ever.