As 5G networks have continued to spread across the world, the biggest issue with ultra-fast millimeter wave (mmWave) towers has been their short transmission distance, which is generally measured in city blocks rather than miles. Today, Qualcomm announced a breakthrough in mmWave transmitting range, successfully achieving a 5G data connection over a 3.8-kilometer (2.36-mile) distance — over twice the range originally promised by its long-range QTM527 antenna system last year.
It’s important to put today’s news in perspective, as the record is specific to broadband modems rather than smartphones. Qualcomm is touting the achievement as evidence of mmWave’s viability as a fixed wireless access solution, enabling carriers to offer fiber-speed 5G coverage in rural, suburban, and urban communities that might have had poor wired home broadband options in the past. The successful test was conduced in Regional Victoria, Australia, presumably with minimal physical interference between the sending and receiving devices.
Millimeter wave 5G has the potential to be the fastest flavor of the new cellular standard, enabling multiple gigabit per second transfer speeds thanks to generally huge blocks of available wireless spectrum. In the United States, Verizon has thus far relied exclusively on millimeter wave for its 5G service, enabling both home broadband modems and handsets to reach 1-2Gbps speeds if they’re in close proximity to 5G towers. Combined with fast network responsiveness (aka low latency), those speeds are expected to enable everything from realtime mixed reality streaming to next-generation industrial applications.
But until now, mmWave has struggled to reach devices at long distances, requiring carriers to deploy large numbers of short-range “small cells” just to achieve coverage. Each doubling of range theoretically reduces the required small cell density considerably, making deployment less expensive for carriers and more practical for actual 5G service rollouts. However, range improvement promises have thus far been focused on home broadband modems, not handheld devices.
The test relied on two existing Qualcomm hardware solutions — the Snapdragon X55 modem and QTM527 antenna — inside a consumer premises equipment” broadband modem, communicating with Ericsson’s Air5121 and Baseband 6630 tower hardware, enhanced by extended-range software. No details were provided on the speeds or other details of the connection, but Qualcomm characterized the successful range test as “the first step in utilizing mmWave for an extended-range 5G data transfer,” hinting that there may have been speed or other compromises to achieve the range. The company previously noted that carriers would be able to deliver up to 7Gbps download speeds if the QTM527 could access a full 800MHz of mmWave spectrum; existing tower hardware has hit 4.3Gbps for a single device, or 8.5Gbps for two devices.
Qualcomm has already announced the more capable Snapdragon X60 modem as a followup to the X55, but hasn’t yet revealed a successor antenna solution to the QTM527, which was announced just under a year ago. As improving mmWave’s long-distance performance appears to have been a top priority for the company and its partners, it’s highly likely that we’ll continue to see continued gains in future consumer and carrier offerings.