Qualcomm: 5G is all about sub 6 GHz and mmWave

MAUI, HAWAII—If there were any doubts about where Qualcomm stands when it comes to millimeter wave, Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon put those to rest, saying millimeter wave (mmWave) without a doubt will be one of the key spectrums used in 5G.

“Real 5G is really the combination of sub 6 and millimeter wave, and that’s going to happen on a global scale,” he told the audience at the opening of the Snapdragon Summit on Tuesday. “We made the prediction that by 2021, all leading economies will have millimeter wave deployed, and as you think of the use cases beyond smartphones, millimeter wave is required.”

Millimeter wave is part of conversations across many different kinds of industries and it will be part of both public and private 5G networks, he said, adding that with dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) capabilities, existing 4G spectrum will get upgraded and co-exist with 5G.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions about 5G coverage,” he added, noting that 5G coverage is now seen and reported as just a small percentage of LTE coverage, which is normal because it’s early. As 4G networks matured, that drove operators worldwide to densify their networks and for the past couple of years, that was done for capacity, not coverage. As 5G is deployed on those networks, “you have a very easy and flexible way to build coverage,” he said.

Amon showed a live DSS demo on stage, with 4G and 5G operating in the 850 MHz band. Verizon, Ericsson and Qualcomm were all part of that demo.

Naturally, Verizon appreciates Qualcomm’s support for mmWave, which is at the foundation of its 5G service launches.

Nicki Palmer, senior vice president of technology and product development at Verizon, said Verizon’s strategy is all about millimeter wave and while that won’t always be the case, “we feel like that’s where the transformative use cases happen.” The sub-6 GHz spectrum is not bad; it just doesn’t have the massive amounts of bandwidth that the mmWave spectrum offers, and Verizon, through acquisitions that included StraightPath in 2017, holds the lion’s share of mmWave in the U.S. right now.

On the sidelines of the Snapdragon Summit, Palmer explained that in the 28 GHz band, for example, it has 800 MHz on average and in some markets, it has 1 Gigahertz. By comparison, when Verizon first launched 4G on 700 MHz, it launched with 10x10, or 20 MHz of spectrum, and now they’re talking 800 MHz for 5G, or even 900 MHz or more. “Massive amounts of capacity there, that’s where the speed comes from,” she said.

RELATED: T-Mobile bashes Verizon, AT&T as it lights up nationwide 5G

And while she said she wasn’t here to bash T-Mobile, which is making hay about its 600 MHz for 5G, Verizon has had 700 MHz spectrum for over 10 years now. So while T-Mobile is using its relatively new low-band spectrum to reach more places and build out coverage, Verizon is building out deeper and deeper with mmWave. It already has seven mmWave devices that it can offer to consumers.

Device support

Amon and others reiterated that the expectation is that by the end of the first quarter of 2020, there will be smartphones that support both millimeter wave and sub-6 GHz.

To be clear, not everyone is seeking to put mmWave into devices. T-Mobile is one recent example. The phones it launched as part of its 600 MHz 5G deployment support only sub-6 GHz, even though it has millimeter wave spectrum. That’s presumably because it wanted devices this year and the fastest way to get them was to go sub-6 GHz only.

Ryan Sullivan, VP of Product Development & Engineering at Sprint, said ultimately over time, it makes sense for manufacturers to work on global SKUs, or models, and that should support multiple markets around the world, but it’s still very early in the life cycle of 5G and the components are not yet cheap.

For the time being, he expects to see models that support sub-6 GHz only and some that support mmWave only because it’s too expensive and cumbersome to build products that support multiple bands, particularly when the operator doesn’t need it in there. If Sprint is still a stand-alone company, it will not have a millimeter wave requirement for its phones in 2020, he said.

Editor's Note: Qualcomm paid for this reporter’s travel and expenses related to attending this event.