As you might guess the week before Mobile World Congress, there’s a lot of mobile chip news coming out, but on Thursday Qualcomm released a doozey. It unveiled a new radio chip that the silicon vendor claims can support all of the world’s LTE bands in a single device, helping to overcome the fragmentation problems that plague 4G device makers.
Qualcomm’s baseband chips and integrated applications processors have long supported all cellular technologies and bands, but they’ve never been able to produce a truely global phone. That’s because the other hardware components of the phone have never supported the same breadth of frequencies. Consequently, LTE devices have always been region-specific. Even Apple had to can its usual of strategy of producing a single global device and design three different variants of the iPhone 5.
But Qualcomm’s new front-end chip, called the RF360, can supposedly support up to 40 LTE bands, both the time division and frequency division variants of LTE and all legacy 3G and 2G technologies to boot. Qualcomm created a 3D chip that utilizes a separate sophisticated antenna tuner that can latch onto any of 40 LTE frequencies between 600 MHz and 2.7 GHz – pretty much the entire range of current 4G spectrum.
This technology will be a key element in creating the future universal LTE phone, but — before you get too excited — it’s not the only necessary element. Other components in the RF chain such as the antenna will need to catch up before a device could feasibly work on every LTE network in the world. Smart antenna makers like SkyCross and Ethertronics have designed antennas that can support a dozen bands or so, but they’re not quite ready for 40.
But Qualcomm EVP and co-president of mobile and computing technologies Murthy Renduchintala said that the RF360 would allow device makers to make far fewer variants of their phones. In order to cover all of the world’s LTE networks, a vendor is faced with the prospect of designing as many as 10 different devices. The capabilities of RF360 could cut that number down to as few as three, he said.
“There will always be more problems to solve,” Renduchintala said an interview with GigaOM. “What we’ve done here is remove one of the most enormous obstacles.”
One of the problems this technology could overcome is the 4G fragmentation problem that’s already emerging in the U.S. All four of major operators are deploying LTE on different frequencies, while the rural and many regional operators are off on their lonesome in a neglected portion of the 700 MHz band. Clearwire isn’t just launching LTE on it’s own 2.5 GHz band, it’s the only U.S. carrier using TD-LTE. Maybe the RF360 can’t yet produce a global 4G phone, but it could produce a universal phone for the U.S. — and maybe ensure that smaller operators aren’t left out of the 4G revolution.
Also, Apple could conceivably use the technology to combine all of its iPhone 5 variants into a single device, but it still wouldn’t have a universal iPhone. Apple’s three iPhone models still leave out a good deal of the world’s current LTE frequencies, and with current technology it couldn’t cram 30 or 40 bands into a single device.
But wait, there’s more! Qualcomm has also introduced its own envelope tracking technology into the module, which will help sate LTE device’s notorious hunger for power. Envelope tracking helps control the enormous energy spikes inherent in LTE, reducing device power consumption by as much as 30 percent. Other silicon vendors like Broadcom and Altair Semiconductor have announced support for envelope tracking in their new super-chips, but support doesn’t necessarily equate inclusion. Qualcomm developed its technology in-house and is embedding envelope trackers directly into its future RF products.
Renduchintala said the module has already begun sampling and is in the hands of phone manufacturers. The first commercial devices with the new capabilities should start appearing in the latter half of the year.
This post was updated at 12:05 PM, Thursday, with new information on the implications of the technology for the iPhone.