Qualcomm unveils third-gen 5G modem

Mobile chip maker Qualcomm has offered the first look at its third generation 5G modem, but it won’t appear in devices for a year.

The Snapdragon X60 5G Modem-RF System, to use its full name, will be the first of any kind to incorporate a baseband that’s manufactured on the 5nm process. This means the silicon can do more processing and use less power then older manufacturing processes. Other than that the headline new features concern carrier aggregation.

Not only will the X60 support CA across all 5G bands, including mmWave, it will also let you combine FDD and TDD streams. The significance of this kind of CA flexibility is that, in principle, it will allow operators to cobble together whatever bits of spectrum they find down the back of the sofa in a bid to deliver on the many promises made on behalf of 5G.

“Qualcomm Technologies is at the heart of 5G launches globally with mobile operators and OEMs introducing 5G services and mobile devices at record pace,” said Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm President. “As 5G standalone networks are introduced in 2020, our third-generation 5G modem-RF platform brings extensive spectrum aggregation capabilities and options to fuel the rapid expansion of 5G rollouts while enhancing coverage, power efficiency and performance for mobile devices. We are excited about the fast adoption of 5G across geographies and the positive impact 5G is having on the user experience.”

There’s not that much else to add for now, since this new product portfolio is still some way from existing in the wild. AnandTech did a comprehensive-looking deep dive here, if you fancy geeking out a bit on this, and there’s also the vid below. What does seem likely is that Qualcomm will maintain its 5G modem leadership for the foreseeable future.

US reportedly moves to restrict all Huawei access to US chip tech

The US Department of Commerce is said to be weighing new options to further limit Huawei’s access to the semiconductor technologies coming out the American companies.

The Wall Street Journal reported (behind paywall) that the DoC is working on changes to the remit of the “foreign direct product rule” to demand Huawei’s chip suppliers to apply for special licences if they use American technologies and American equipment. The rule currently “restricts foreign companies’ use of U.S. technology for military or national-security products”.

The measures have been mooted for a few weeks but have only just been put forward. President Trump is yet to review it, and not everyone in the administration is in favour of the changes, the newspaper reported. Semiconductor is one of America’s biggest export sectors to China.

The new rules could become a deterrent to all the semiconductor foundries for Huawei, including the Chinese companies, as they could be relying on technologies owned by or using equipment made by American companies. They could be forced to choose between holding on to Huawei as a customer or keeping their legitimate access to American technologies.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company Limited (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chip maker, is said to have generated more than 10% of its $35 billion annual income from fabrication for HiSilicon, Huawei’s fabless chip design subsidiary, according to estimate cited by WSJ.

Over the past year, despite the US restrictions on semiconductor export to Huawei, many businesses have managed to continue their business without a special licence, if they could prove the proportion of American-made value is lower than 25% of the total value. The DoC has proposed to lower the threshold to 10%.

If the new measures should enter into force, they would not only disperse the optimism for the telecoms industry following the “Phase-1” trade deal signed between the US and China, but also represent a new escalation of the Trump Administration’s efforts to further hamstring Huawei. Semiconductor fabrication has been an area that China has struggled to gain on their American competitors.

It would also be seen as part of the concerted government actions towards this purpose. The Defense Department has recently dropped its opposition to the government’s efforts to restrict American chip makers to supply Huawei through their overseas facilities.

The WSJ report comes days after the DoJ announced a set of superseding indictments, also days after the DoC granted 45 days extension to Huawei’s “Temporary General License”. At the time of writing, Huawei has not responded to Telecoms.com’s request for comment.

Motorola gets its Razr screen apologies in early

Ahead of shipping in a couple of weeks, Motorola has published some vids highlighting features of the pricey foldyphone, but also how to take care of it.

We’re distraught to have to inform you that Moto has followed Apple’s lead in dispensing with the definite article when referring to its products, as if they were a person or at least a fondly regarded domestic animal. Hence we get the video below, entitled ‘Caring for razr’, invoking the image of an enfeebled relative or instructions to a dog-sitter.

Razr is a delicate little petal, you see, and can’t just be manhandled as if it’s just some slab of circuitry egested from an indifferent production line. Razr has feelings, which will be hurt if you don’t treat it like the special, unique snowflake it is. Especially fragile, it seems, is its defining bendy screen, which we’re told is inclined to acquire ‘lumps and bumps’.

Now, before you scoff, let they who are without sin cast the first stone. Are you entirely free of lumps and bumps yourself? Because if not then who do you think you are judging Razr? Yes he/she/they cost a grand and a half and the upside of his/her/their deliberate Achilles Heel is far from obvious, but Moto urges those who adopt Razr to be gentle.

Europe wants to force all mobile phones to use the same charger port

Six years ago the European Union started ‘encouraging’ mobile phone makers to unite around a common charger format, but they didn’t take the hint.

The encouragement was introduced as part of an update to the Radio Equipment Directive, through which the European Commission tries to control that market. In the name of reducing waste (without detailing how) and simplifying their use, MEPs voted to mandate the move towards a universal charger port for mobile phones. At the time the EC decided nudge theory was the best place to start.

“The modernised Radio Equipment Directive is an efficient tool to prevent interference between different radio equipment devices,” said EU spokesperson Barbara Weiler at the time. “I am especially pleased that we agreed on the introduction of a common charger. This serves the interests both of consumers and the environment. It will put an end to charger clutter and 51,000 tonnes of electronic waste annually.”

How many consumers were consulted for them to come to that conclusion is unclear, but who can honestly say they bear no emotional scars from having to switch between two or three port formats every now and then? Similarly it’s not immediately obvious what ecological benefit of a unified charger will be, since devices always come with one anyway, but what do we know?

Anyway, for all the EC’s efforts we’re still faced with the bleak situation of having to contend with up to three charger formats and, quite frankly, it won’t do. If mobile phone makers won’t respond to encouragement, it seems, then more assertive techniques are required to ensure compliance with the grand plan.

So recently there was a call to introduce common charger for all mobile phones, which noted ‘The Commission’s approach of “encouraging” industry to develop common chargers fell short of the co-legislators’ objectives. The voluntary agreements between different industry players have not yielded the desired results. A common charger should fit all mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers and other portable devices, MEPs will insist.”

Now, by happy coincidence, or perhaps not, the industry is gravitating towards the USB-C format anyway, especially at the top end, so it’s presumably just a matter of time before it becomes ubiquitous. When that does happen the EU bureaucracy will be able to pat itself on the back for chalking up another win for consumers and the environment.

Qualcomm all-in on cars at CES 2020

At the first big tech show of the year mobile chip giant Qualcomm is focusing on cars rather than phones.

The most eye-catching of its many CES announcements is Qualcomm Snapdragon Ride, a new autonomous driving platform. It consists of the family of Snapdragon Ride Safety SoCs, Snapdragon Ride Safety Accelerator and Snapdragon Ride Autonomous Stack. Qualcomm claims it’s one of the automotive industry’s most advanced, scalable and open autonomous driving solutions, but then it would.

In common with the smartphone Snapdragon platform, Qualcomm is aiming to provide as much of the technology required to enable autonomous driving as possible in one package. Right now that includes the following: L1/L2 Active Safety ADAS for vehicles that include automatic emergency braking, traffic sign recognition and lane keeping assist functions; L2+ Convenience ADAS for vehicles featuring Automated Highway Driving, Self-Parking and Urban Driving in Stop-and-Go traffic; and L4/L5 Fully Autonomous Driving for autonomous urban driving, robo-taxis and robo-logistics.

“Today, we are pleased to be introducing our first-generation Snapdragon Ride platform, which is highly scalable, open, fully customizable and highly power optimized autonomous driving solution designed to address a range of requirements from NCAP to L2+ Highway Autopilot to Robo Taxis,” said Nakul Duggal, SVP of product management at Qualcomm.

“Combined with our Snapdragon Ride Autonomous Stack, or an automaker or tier-1’s own algorithms, our platform aims at accelerating the deployment of high-performance autonomous driving to mass market vehicles. We’ve spent the last several years researching and developing our new autonomous platform and accompanying driving stack, identifying challenges and gathering insights from data analysis to address the complexities automakers want to solve.”

There were a bunch of other related announcements, including new strategic partnerships with GM, Denso and Sasken, as well as some other additions to Qualcomm’s connected car portfolio. Elsewhere the Bluetooth industry received another boost with Qualcomm’s launch of aptX Voice high quality audio. CES has always offered Qualcomm the opportunity to show off what it offers outside of the smartphone space and it seems to be taking good advantage this year.

Samsung claims the 5G lead after 6.7 million shipments

It might be nothing more than a symbolic milestone for the moment, though Samsung us claiming it is leading the way for 5G device shipments at the close of 2019.

After claiming to have sold 2 million devices at IFA in September, Samsung seemingly romped through the final three months with a total of 6.7 million 5G device shipments for 2019. The figure eclipses the 4 million target the firm set itself, though as its main Android competitor (Huawei) is being stifled by political friction, it is hardly surprising Samsung has stormed into the lead.

What is worth noting is this is nothing more than a bit of posturing. 6.7 million devices is simply a drop in the ocean of potential and could be dwarfed by an aggressive campaign by Apple in the US or Huawei in China. That said, you cannot argue with the figures; in the absence of main competitors, Samsung is maintaining its leadership position in the 5G segment as well as 4G.

“Consumers can’t wait to experience 5G and we are proud to offer a diverse portfolio of devices that deliver the best 5G experience possible,” said TM Roh, President of the IT & Mobile Communications Division.

“For Samsung, 2020 will be the year of Galaxy 5G and we are excited to bring 5G to even more device categories and introduce people to mobile experiences they never thought possible.”

While many analysts do not share Samsung’s belief that the consumer is clawing at the walls for 5G connectivity, there are likely to be more sales across the year. Firstly, geographical coverage will improve to whet the appetite, and secondly, 5G will come as standard on device; device shipments will most likely organically increase.

What will be worth keeping an eye on is the choices made by device manufacturers over the coming months as flagship models are pumped and hyped at industry conferences. Perhaps the most interesting element will be the ways and means by which the OEMs work with Qualcomm.

It has become widely accepted that the latest Qualcomm chipset features in the majority of flagship smartphone devices throughout the year. However, this year some OEMs will have a choice to make; to integrate or not to integrate?

Over the next few months Qualcomm will begin shipping both the Snapdragon 865 and Snapdragon 765 chipsets. The Snapdragon 865 is more powerful, though 5G is on a separate modem, potentially decreasing the power efficiency of devices. The Snapdragon 765 has 5G connectivity integrated, though is notably less powerful. Whichever chipset OEMs elect for, there will be a trade-off to stomach.

Looking at the rumours spreading through the press, it does appear many of the smartphone manufacturers are electing for the Snapdragon 865 and a paired 5G modem in the device. Samsung’s Galaxy S11, Sony Xperia 2 and the Google Pixel 5 are only some of the launches suggested to feature the Snapdragon 865 as opposed to its 5G integrated sister chipset.

5G might not have gotten off to the blistering start some in the industry would have been hoping for, but there is still plenty to come. With Mobile World Congress kicking-off in just over two months, there is amble opportunity for new devices to be launched prior, during and just after the event, while the iLifers will have all eyes cast towards September for Apple’s launch.

Imagination re-wins Apple as customer

Almost three years ago, Apple decided it could get by without Imagination Technologies as a supplier, but 2020 gets off to a flier for the UK chip firm resigning a licencing agreement.

Details are thin on the ground for the moment, though this completes a very circular story for the Hertfordshire-based company. Imagination Technologies has now confirmed Apple has signed a multi-year agreement to access a “wider range of Imagination’s intellectual property”.

The original deal between the pair was signed in 2014, though it only took three years for Apple to decide it wanted to move operations in-house. This is becoming an increasingly common tactic for the iLeader, the acquisition of Intel’s 5G modem business is another example, though it seems Apple was not able to replicate the success of Imagination Technologies’ graphics cards.

Although Apple is still a highly profitable company, slowing growth and increased costs for the iPhone have presented a problem on the spreadsheets. As a result, CEO Tim Cook has attempted to supercharge the ‘software and services’ division to generate momentum, while bringing more of the supply chain in-house is another way to create efficiencies and profits. Imagination was a victim of the latter.

As a result of losing Apple as a customer, and more than half of the company’s annual revenues which were tied to the firm, Imagination Technologies saw its share price plummet 70% and eventually have to succumb to being sold to Canyon Bridge, a Chinese-backed private equity firm, for £550 million. At the peak of its powers, Imagination Technologies was worth more than £2 billion.

The agreement with Apple comes a month after the launch of the A-Series chipset, which Imagination Technologies CEO Ron Black described as the “most important GPU launch” in 15 years. This is of course little more than posturing from the CEO, though Apple clearly bought into the buzz, that or it figured out that designing and manufacturing GPUs is more difficult than it first thought.

Qualcomm unveils new flagship Snapdragon

Mobile chip giant Qualcomm dragged the industry over to Hawaii so they could hear about some of the new stuff it has lined up for next year.

You’ll be amazed to hear that Qualcomm reckons 5G is going to be a big deal and that it expects to be a big part of that. “5G will open new and exciting opportunities to connect, compute, and communicate in ways we’ve yet to imagine and we are happy to be a key player driving the adoption of 5G around the world,” said Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon, presumably having had to be dragged away from a Mai Tai to manage even that.

At the vanguard of Qualcomm’s 2020 5G push will, of course, be it’s Snapdragon SoCs, which tend to find their way into the mobile devices made by any vendor that can’t be bothered to make its own chips. The flagship Snapdragon next year will be the 865, which will include the X55 5G modem. One rung further down the value chain will be the 765, see how it works?

The other main announcement on the first day in Maui is an updated version of Qualcomm’s ‘3D sonic fingerprint technology’. Apparently the new, improved version offers a 17x lager recognition area as well as other improvements. The keynote didn’t seem to address the hassle Samsung recently had with the technology, which presumably led to a bit of a diplomatic incident between the companies. Cnet, however, had a chat with Qualcomm about that very topic, which you can read here.

Lastly, for those of you either not invited or disinclined to schlep half way around the world for a spot of sub-tropical death-by-PowerPoint, Qualcomm thoughtfully recorded the Day 1 keynotes and put them of YouTube, which you can see below.

Huawei’s Mate 30 is void of any US components

If the objective of the White House was to destroy Huawei by undermining its supply chain, the strategy is seemingly heading towards failure.

Only a few months after announced it had built a 5G base station without US contributions, Huawei has now stated its latest smartphone is free of US components also. According to device teardown by UBS and Fomalhaut Techno Solutions, originally cited by the Wall Street Journal, Huawei has managed to find supply chain alternatives for every US supplier.

“We would like to continue using American components,” said Huawei Head of Cybersecurity John Suffolk. “It’s good for American industry. It’s good for Huawei. That has been taken out of our hands.”

While some might have been nervous about the Huawei ban when it first emerged out of the Oval Office, some fears may have been lessened today. With Huawei capable of producing smartphone products and 5G base stations without purchasing hardware from US companies, it does appear the economic dirty bomb dropped by the White House will not have the desired impact, as it did on ZTE in 2017.

What is worth noting is that hardware is only half the battle when it comes to delivering consumer experience; the software is equally or more important. Without Google services or the Android operating system, Huawei’s smartphone business is most-likely to see a slow in sales in Western markets.

However, what remains to be seen is whether the devices and base stations are in-line with the high-standards customers, both consumers and telcos, have become used to. Changing the components of a products is highly-likely to impact performance in some manner, though whether this is a material downgrade remains to be seen.

This outcome might irritate the strategists in the White House, though it does appear another plan is currently in the works.

According to two sources, the US Government is considering extending the trade ban. Not only would the new scope include US companies, but also companies who are based in allied countries of the US. This would most likely create a catastrophic impact to Huawei’s business.

What is worth noting is that just because the US wants allies to place trade barriers in-front of Huawei doesn’t mean they actually will. Most US allies have refused to ban Huawei from selling 5G products to telcos, despite pleas, posturing and threats. The huffing and puffing from the White House does not seem to have that much impact on European nations, for example.

President Trump might have spent his first 70 years forcing his will on others in the commercial world, but he has found out Presidents and Prime Ministers of sovereign nations are not as easily swayed by temper tantrums.

Intel reduced to using MediaTek modems for 5G PCs

Remember when Intel was Apple’s 5G secret weapon to break Qualcomm’s modem stranglehold? Well, now not so much.

It turns out Intel can’t even cobble together a modem for its own products and has been reduced to calling on the help of MediaTek to bring 5G to PCs containing its chips. The resulting effort is, of course, being positioned as ‘a 5G solution’, which long-time Intel partners Dell and HP will be dutifully whacking into some of their laptops when it becomes available.

“5G is poised to unleash a new level of computing and connectivity that will transform the way we interact with the world,” proclaimed Gregory Bryant, GM of Intel’s Client Computing Group. “This partnership with MediaTek brings together industry leaders with deep engineering, system integration and connectivity expertise to deliver 5G experiences on the next generation of the world’s best PCs.”

Note the uncharacteristic absence of superlatives in that otherwise by-the-book canned quote. That’s because everyone knows Qualcomm is the 5G modem leader, even Apple. Relations between Qualcomm and intel are presumably strained since the latter tried to help Apple strong-arm the former and as a result Intel partners get an inferior modem in their 5G solutions.

“Our 5G modem for PCs, developed in partnership with Intel, is integral to making 5G accessible and available across home and mobile platforms,” said MediaTek President Joe Chen. “5G will usher in the next era of PC experiences, and working with Intel, an industry leader in computing, highlights MediaTek’s expertise in designing 5G technology for global markets.”

Does it really though, Joe? Anyway, the extent to which there will be any demand for laptops with built-in 5G built in remains to be seen. With tethering now so easy, it’s hard to see why anyone would pay a premium for any kind of embedded modem in their lappy, let alone a 5G one. But it would have looked bad for Intel to not even give it a go, and that’s what this announcement seems to be about, as much as anything else.