Samsung introduces new affordable 5G smartphones

Samsung has added 5G to two of its A-series smartphones, aiming to bring 5G smartphones to the mainstream segment.

Though it is becoming more popular, 5G smartphone is still viewed as premium for early adopters. However, the two new products launched by Samsung today are of a distinctly different category. The A-series in Samsung’s Galaxy portfolio is positioned as more value for money and targeted at the lower-end segment. Products of this series come with decent enough specs but not priced at the top end.

“Our ambition with the Galaxy A series portfolio is to deliver must-have innovations, and powerful experiences, at a varied range of prices but without compromising on features” said YeonJeong Kim, Vice President, Head of Innovative Product Planning Group, Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics. “I’m excited today to be announcing the next step in our journey with the Galaxy A71 5G and Galaxy A51 5G. These devices are designed for the era of 5G, and are part of our ongoing commitment to deliver next-generation connectivity to more people, by building 5G into our diverse smartphone portfolio, at more accessible price points.”

The specs of the two new phones are rather similar, albeit that the Galaxy A71 5G (pictured) comes with a slightly bigger and better display, slightly more powerful main camera, and faster charging. Both are built on existing chassis: the LTE versions of the A71 and A51 were launched in December 2019.

The new 5G iterations of the products use Samsung’s own first generation 5G SoC, the 8nm Exynos 980 launched in the second half of last year (while the LTE version was using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 730 platform).

Both new phones will come with Samsung services and applications preinstalled, including Bixby (Vision, Lens Mode, Routines), Samsung Pay where applicable, and Samsung Health. They will also be equipped with Samsung Knox, the company’s own security software. Samsung does not specify when and where the products will be available, nor their prices.

There are quite a few 5G smartphone launches that we haven’t seen, due to the onslaught of COVID-19. Companies like Huawei and Xiaomi have moved their events online, but these were mainly for flagship products. Meanwhile, more and more OEMs are bringing 5G to the affordable, mainstream segment. Only a couple of days ago the Chinese phone maker TCL launched a £399 5G smartphone of its own, built on Qualcomm’s mid-range 5G SoC, Snapdragon 765.

The affordable 5G segment is further bolstered by the competing solution from MediaTek, the Dimensity 800. These mid-range 5G SoC’s, including Samsung’s own Exynos 980, are likely to bring the mainstream 5G smartphones down to the $500 retail price point, which will be “the sweet spot for 5G Android smartphone takeoff,” as Neil Mawston from Strategy Analytics told Telecoms.com separately.

“This is when 5G phones become affordable to more than half of consumers in developed markets like Europe,” Mawston said.

What a Wonderful World of 5G Devices

Many brands have already brought to market large numbers of 5G devices, such as smartphones and hotspots. According to the latest tracking done by the GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association), an industry organisation, over 250 devices had been announced by mid-March 2020, with 67 of them commercially available, including 40 smartphones. Half a year previously, the same tracking recorded only 100 public device announcements, with only nine 5G smartphones commercially available. The pace of new 5G device launches has clearly been accelerating.

(Here we are sharing the opening section of this Telecoms.com Intelligence special briefing to look into how 5G operators and device makers can work together to deliver a win-win solution to grow the 5G ecosystem.

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.)

Consumers Love 5G Smartphones, or Do They?

Even in the midst of the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19, the smartphone marketplace has been busy. A number of flagship 5G smartphones have been launched by companies like Samsung and Huawei as well as their challengers, most of which had been meant to be unveiled at this year’s Mobile World Congress that did not happen. Many companies have moved their launch events online.

Consumers have signed up to 5G services faster than they did 4G. South Korea clocked up 5 million 5G subscribers by the end of 2019, eight months after the three operators switched on their 5G networks. China’s total number of 5G subscribers topped 10 million by the end of 2019, only two months after the three operators launched 5G in the world’s biggest smartphone market. China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile operator by subscriber number, reported that it had attracted 15.4 million 5G customers by the end of February, four months after launch. Despite that few if any other operators have published their 5G subscriber numbers, the momentum is there.

So far, 5G device shipment numbers have been strong. The research firm Strategy Analytics estimated that 19 million 5G smartphones were shipped in 2019. This was higher than most analysts had expected. So, at the first sight at least, consumers have shown strong enthusiasm in embracing 5G smartphones. Meanwhile, some evidence is showing that consumers have bought 5G smartphones not necessarily for 5G, or at least not the 5G the industry professionals would define it.

A research recently published by the software company Amdocs found that over a third of British consumers are interested in upgrading to 5G devices this year, but most of them are not sure what 5G is all about. The minority of consumers that claimed to know 5G would primarily cite faster internet. However, if the consumers take operators’ “gigabit speed” promise literally, they will be disappointed.

The network benchmarking and testing firm Global Wireless Solutions conducted a field test of the 5G networks in the centre of London towards the end of last year. The highest download speed of 470 Mbps was recorded on EE network, while the lower speeds of 330 Mbps and 320 Mbps were recorded on O2 and Vodafone networks respectively. These numbers, in addition to falling far short of “gigabit”, could only be achieved if the customer stood next to the base stations. Even those consumers well versed enough to quote buzz words like “low latency” would also be disappointed. The Global Wireless Solutions tests have found no meaningful improvement in latency from 4G connectivity.

This is an indication that the success to expand 5G adoption from early adopters to early majority is far from certain. While operators are honing their skills to convince consumers of 5G benefits, device makers, in particular smartphone brands, would also have much to lose if consumer enthusiasm should dampen by the underwhelming experience and patchy coverage.

To explore the topic further, the rest of this report first discusses what operators are looking for in 5G devices. We then analyse the key drivers for higher consumer adoption of 5G devices, including the underlying technologies. The report concludes by looking at the leading trends in the 5G device market in the next two to three years.

The rest of the report include these sections:

  • Do Not Ask What Operators Can Do For You, Ask What You Can Do For the Operators
  • What Is Happening Under the Hood?
  • Plenty To Look Forward To
  • Q&A with Daniel Gleeson, Principal Analyst, Omdia
  • Additional Resources

The full version of the report is available for free to download here.

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.

The EU starts hassling US tech companies again

Facebook and Qualcomm look set for another round of scrutiny from the European Commission around their business practices.

According to the WSJ, Facebook is being asked to hand over internal documents to EU antitrust investigators so they can have a deeper look into whether or not it used dirty tricks against its competition. The allegation is that Facebook made use of its users’ data to skew the market in its favour by bribing partners to stay loyal.

That’s the sort of thing Qualcomm has got into trouble with the European Commission about in the past and, according to Reuters, lightning may be about to strike twice. Qualcomm revealed in a regulatory filing accompanying its recent quarterlies that the EU is investigating whether it abused its dominant position in radio frequency front-end chips.

It seems the EU is concerned that Qualcomm is using its near monopoly in 5G modems to strongly encourage customers to buy its RF chips too. Apparently sales of RF chips were a factor in issuing a better than expected forecast. As ever this will all drag out as lawyers and antitrust types get bogged down in the minutiae of it all, but it seems clear that the EU’s appetite for hassling US tech companies is undiminished.

Vodafone claims dynamic spectrum sharing first

The point of DSS is to allow smooth transitioning between 4G and 5G by allowing them to share the same spectrum, dynamically.

Vodafone reckons it’s the first to demonstrate this handy tech over a couple of low frequency bands (700 and 800 MHz). It announced it on a blog late last week, but kept so quiet about it that we only just found out. As if to demonstrate the folly of a complete Huawei ban, the Chinese vendor was involved, but so was Ericsson and, inevitably, Qualcomm.

The specific first was the simultaneous use of two bands on one 5G NSA device. Only the 700 MHz band did any dynamic sharing, however, with the other one used as an ‘anchor’ whatever that means. Light Reading attempted to shed some light on it here. It looks like DSS has never been a thing before, so this is quite a big deal.

Outside of technological milestone gathering, this matters because it should minimise the disruption caused by the switch to 5G. For operators it means that, in terms of spectrum, they don’t have to hold on with one hand before letting go of the other and will effectively make refarming a thing of the past, at least in theory.

TIM claims 5G speed record with help from Ericsson and Qualcomm

A trio of telecoms trailblazers managed to break the 2 Gbps barrier with 5G over 26 GHz, which is apparently a European record.

TIM, Ericsson and Qualcomm have a rich history of collaborating in the name of self-promotion over 5G and there’s nothing like a speed record for a bit of corporate chest-beating. TIM has a whopping 400MHz of spectrum in this millimetre wave band, which is the main reason it’s able to set records such as this. Meanwhile, as ever, Ericsson provided the radio and Qualcomm the modem.

“This milestone paves the way to the development of new 5G solutions to grant fixed ultrabroadband to families, companies and public authorities not yet covered,” said Michele Gamberini, TIM’s CTIO. “This also includes coverage dedicated to the development of robotics and automation digital services in the smart manufacturing area. All of our customers will therefore be able to take advantage of a wide range of integrated solutions that will allow them to fully enter the digital society”.

“We are extremely pleased that TIM has chosen Ericsson’s 5G technology to achieve this important milestone, placing our country at the forefront of the commercial implementation of the fifth generation of mobile networks,” said Emanuele Iannetti, Country Manager at Ericsson Italy. “Ericsson thus confirms its technological leadership and its readiness to anticipate any market demands.”

“Qualcomm Technologies congratulates TIM on this significant milestone which again demonstrates the potential of 5G mmWave technology and shows how operators are able to use a wide range of spectrum bands to deploy 5G,” said Enrico Salvatori, president, Qualcomm EMEA. “2020 will see a significant expansion in 5G coverage and the use of mmWave bands will play a clear role in the build-out.”

The rest of the TIM press release was mostly spent going on about how this proves the company was right to blow loads of cash at the last Italian spectrum auction. It still remains to be seen how useful high frequency spectrum will be in real life, or indeed how much use there will be for such high data rates, but it’s always nice to be able to claim you’re at the cutting edge regardless.

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.

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.

Intel fires one final bullying accusation at Qualcomm

Months following the well-publicised sale of its smartphone modem business to Apple, Intel has hit out at Qualcomm, accusing the semiconductor giant of market dominance misbehaviour.

Intel has now filed a brief with the US District Court of Northern District of California supporting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and opposing Qualcomm’s appeal, as the semiconductor giant fights against the condemning decision it is unfairly destroying market competition.

“Intel agrees with the District Court’s findings,” said Intel General Counsel Steven Rodgers.

“Intel suffered the brunt of Qualcomm’s anticompetitive behaviour, was denied opportunities in the modem market, was prevented from making sales to customers and was forced to sell at prices artificially skewed by Qualcomm. We filed the brief because we believe it is important for the Court of Appeals to hear our perspective.”

The anti-competition spat between the FTC and Qualcomm has been going on for years now, though it did seem to come to a head over the summer. The District Court ruled Qualcomm was abusing its position as market leader, strangling competition with unfair pricing models to effectively maintain a monopoly, though Qualcomm filed an appeal in July to reverse the decision.

Although Intel now has no skin left in the game, it sold its own 5G modem business to Apple earlier this year, reportedly for $1 billion, it is seemingly attempting to throw one last bitter barb at Qualcomm.

Intel has said in the filing that it was forced to exit the market because of the anti-competitive behaviour of Qualcomm. Through complicated and suspect contract negotiated with customers, Intel could not make the business profitable, which it now argues ultimately creates a negative gain for the consumer.

Interestingly enough, this is not the only voice of support for the FTC and in opposition of the Qualcomm appeal. Trade groups representing the likes of BMW, Continental, General Motors and Ford have also said if Qualcomm wins the appeal and is allowed to continue its current business model, it would create a precarious position for the emerging connected car segment.

On the other side of the fence, Qualcomm is mustering its own support. The US Department of Justice, the Cause of Action Institute and the Alliance of US Start-ups and Investors for Jobs have all filed amicus briefings in support of Qualcomm, and a reversal of the original antitrust decision from the US District Court.

While being found guilty of anticompetitive behaviour is nothing new for Qualcomm, it has faced already faced hefty fines in Korea, Taiwan and Europe, this legal work is bread and butter for Qualcomm. This is a company which has an army of lawyers and seemingly specialises as much in the legal world as the technology one. Qualcomm will fight this ruling to the dying breath, as while a fine is certainly unattractive, the decision fundamentally undermines the business model which has brought billions to the firm.