“I’m sick of 5G,” was a comment overheard on the final day at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. While it’s not a comment those within the industry necessarily would agree with, it certainly summed up 5G 's status as the most significant topic of year’s show.
MWC is not just an opportunity to see some new hardware, but also to identify the trends and technologies that will shape the sector in the years to come.
Mobile operators and network equipment manufacturers spent four days describing grand visions of a world powered by ultra-connectivity.
But Qualcomm was eager to offer what it considers a concrete course of action rather than hypothetical advances or plans for the future.
The first commercial networks will go live in 2019 – a year earlier than expected – but devices will need to be able to connect to the network, and that’s where Qualcomm comes in. At MWC it announced a slew of products and a technical roadmap to help its partners.
Qualcomm’s influence on the mobile industry cannot be understated. Its systems on a chip (SoCs) are to be found in virtually every major handset announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Sony Xperia XZ2 are but two devices powered by the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset.
Qualcomm’s message was at MWC simple: others are talking about 5G, we’re doing it.
“The thing I want to stress is that this year at the show, we’re not only talking about 5G as a roadmap but as a product,” says Enrico Salvatori, Qualcomm’s EMEA president. “5G is coming and you will see.
“We need to migrate from the idea to the product.”
Qualcomm was one of the parties eager to accelerate the launch date of 5G, and the establishment of a standard last year means this is possible.
“That is a milestone that has allowed us as vendors to move to the planning stage because we have certainty on the specification so we can move from concept to realisation,” he tells TechRadar Pro.
“This Mobile World Congress is for us is a confirmation of the confidence.”
Despite this progress, it’s clear Qualcomm still wants to catalyse adoption. At the show it revealed Qualcomm Snapdragon 5G Module solutions – products that combine the most important components of 5G into a few modules.
This means manufacturers would not have to configure thousands of components to build their devices and instead use just a few modules that cover areas like memory, application processor, RF, antennas and power management.
The idea this will reduce complexity and cost for manufacturers eager to get stuck into the business of building 5G compatible devices or industrial equipment.
Although the company has ambitions for 5G-powered industrial IoT and connected cars, enhanced mobile broadband will be the first mass use case when the first networks go live.
In the lead up to MWC, Qualcomm detailed the Snapdragon X24 modem, which is capable of delivering 2Gbps speeds over LTE. Qualcomm is adamant that LTE will provide the foundation for 5G, allowing the benefits to be more widely received.
The X24 succeeded by the Snapdragon X50 later this year, which will be Qualcomm’s first 5G modem, and is being tested with more than 20 vendors and 18 mobile operators, including BT-EE and Vodafone in the UK.
So far, Qualcomm has managed to achieve 4.51Gbps using the X50, and network simulations have offered a glimpse as to what could be possible in the real world.
The first simulation in Frankfurt saw a 5G New Radio (NR) network using 100MHz worth of 3.5GHz spectrum with an underlying Gigabit LTE network operating across five LTE bands achieve a fivefold increase in downlink capacity, median latency drop from 116ms to 17ms and median download speeds rise 900 percent to 490Mbps.
The second simulation took place in San Francisco and used 800MHz of 28GHz mmWave spectrum with an underlying Gigabit LTE network powered by four licensed bands and Licensed Assisted Access (LAA).
This simulation saw a median speed increase of 2000 per cent to 1.4Gbps and 23 faster responsiveness as latency fell from 115ms to 4.9ms. Qualcomm is particularly excited about this simulation as it demonstrates the power of the mmWave bands.
Despite its influence, Qualcomm is dependent on the operators acquiring spectrum in those bands so consumers can actually use their new handsets. The US plans to hold a mmWave auction later this year, while the UK will hold a sale of 2.3GHz and 3.4GHz airwaves later this year.
Wassim Chourbaji, Qualcomm’s head of government affairs, says regulators should ensure that operators have enough resources to invest in the 5G infrastructure that will power future Snapdragon-enabled devices.
“We need investment,” he explains “The problem in Europe is the Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) is going down. This is good for consumers but it means the investment capacity of operators has eroded over time.
“You need infrastructure sharing. That’s in the new EU regulatory framework. And you need more investment, so they should pay less for the spectrum.
“We need everybody to come together and make it happen.”
And there is an obvious elephant in the room. In the weeks and months leading up to MWC, Qualcomm has rebuffed the advances of rival Broadcom, which is hoping to stage the largest technology acquisition of all time.
Because of Qualcomm’s influence and the need for its 5G technology, the concern among operators and partners will be that any disruption to its roadmap, could cause significant uncertainty at a critical time for the industry.
Fotis Karonis, MD of mobile and voice converged services at EE, appeared on stage with Qualcomm to talk about the operator's plans for 5G. The two firms have worked together extensively on 4G and Karonis expects Qualcomm to lead with 5G.
"Qualcomm is a partner I really appreciate because of its collaborative spirit," he tells TechRadar Pro.
"Qualcomm is such a big player in a collaborative ecosystem and we expect this will continue. The industry would expect it to thrive and continue the same groundbreaking culture of innovation and execution. That’s what we expect.”
A takeover – either hostile or amicable – remains a possibility, with Qualcomm and Broadcom continuing to hold talks. Qualcomm said during MWC that it would consider a bid in excess of $160 billion, but this would appear to be the latest in a series of mind games usually favoured by football managers.
Salvatori is not worried about the boardroom speculation affecting Qualcomm’s plans.
“The operational team is focused on what we have to do,” he tells TechRadar Pro. “We are pleased that the value of what we have built as a company is recognised by the market.
“We will continue to deliver the value that we have created in our technology and products. The people within the company are more focused than ever in delivering our vision.”
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MWC (Mobile World Congress) is the world's largest exhibition for the mobile industry, stuffed full of the newest phones, tablets, wearables and more. TechRadar is reporting live from Barcelona all week to bring you the very latest from the show floor. Head to our dedicated MWC 2018 hub to see all the new releases, along with TechRadar's world-class analysis and buying advice about your next phone.