September 19, 2020

Qualcomm Doubles Range of mmWave 5G to 2.36 Miles

We saw the first consumer 5G devices in 2019, but Qualcomm and carriers put the...

We saw the first consumer 5G devices in 2019, but Qualcomm and carriers put the pedal to the metal in 2020 by designing its Snapdragon 865 chip with a mandatory 5G radio. That’s why phones like the Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8 have 5G connectivity despite limited network support. Verizon, in particular, has been slow to deploy 5G thanks to its reliance on ultra-fast (and ultra-fickle) millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G. Qualcomm says mmWave could get better soon — it’s completed a test that doubles the theoretical range of mmWave to 2.36 miles (3.8 kilometers).

The early 5G rollout has been confusing everywhere but especially in the US where mid-band frequencies are less available. Verizon, facing a lack of desirable 5G spectrum, started its 5G network on mmWave. These frequencies are measured in tens of gigahertz whereas mid-band 5G is around 2-6GHz. The higher mmWave frequencies carry a lot of data, but they don’t propagate far and won’t pass through obstacles. 

Qualcomm has been cheerleading for mmWave since before the first consumer devices went on sale, and why wouldn’t it? Qualcomm is making a lot of money selling these expensive 5G antennas and modems. Now, it says that existing hardware could get more capable. Using the Snapdragon X55 modem and QTM527 antenna, Qualcomm maintained a 5G data connection to a base station 2.36 miles away. It used a standalone 5G broadband modem for the test rather than a smartphone, but phones like the Galaxy Note20 Ultra use the same components. 

A 5G millimeter wave cell site on a light pole in Minneapolis.

Details on the network hardware are light — Qualcomm says the 5G base station was an Ericsson Air5121 with Baseband 6630 tower hardware. The node was running a new extended-range software build, allowing the more distant connection. However, Qualcomm didn’t say how fast that data link was. I would not be surprised if it was much slower than an LTE signal at that distance. 

Currently, all three US carriers have mmWave 5G networks, but Verizon is the only one without a lower-band network to supplement it. So, this technology could benefit everyone, not just Verizon. Still, you have to be in a place with minimal obstacles to get a mmWave signal no matter what the maximum range is — currently, you need to be within about a block of the cell site. Millimeter wave on phones might be a pipe dream, but this advancement could get us where we need to be for useful 5G home broadband.

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