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March Modem Madness

March 21, 2017

Author: Linley Gwennap

At the recent Mobile World Congress (MWC), the market’s two remaining standalone-modem vendors announced next-generation LTE products while also trumpeting progress on the future 5G standard. For the here and now, Qualcomm remains ahead in LTE, with its new Snapdragon X20 modem representing its second Gigabit LTE generation, whereas Intel’s new XMM 7560 is that company’s first Gigabit LTE product. The X20 is scheduled for production in 1Q18; the Intel chip is due two quarters later.

Progress on the 5G standard is accelerating. At its March plenary meeting in Croatia, the 3GPP approved a proposal (RP-170741) submitted by a group of leading chipmakers, equipment vendors, and operators to accelerate a portion of the standard to allow commercial deployments as early as 2H19 rather than in 2020 as previously expected. Specifically, the new plan is to freeze the technical standards for the 5G new radio (5G-NR) non-standalone (NSA) mode in December 2017, while the rest of the Release 15 standard continues to target a June 2018 freeze. Once the spec is frozen, final product development, validation, and trials will require 18–24 months before the first commercial-service launches.

Non-standalone mode is a complicated way of saying that the initial deployments will implement 5G-NR high-speed data while continuing to rely on LTE for connection management. Standalone 5G mode requires a completely new management framework, which will take longer to define. Many companies have already invested considerable development effort in 5G-NR, creating preliminary proposals for the modulation, encoding, frame definition, and other parameters. They hope to come to relatively quick agreement on these features.

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