MediaTek's new 5G chip aims to cut the cost of early 5G devices

The up-front cost of the first wave of 5G smartphones is high, but this could change with cheaper chips

5G mobile

MediaTek has unveiled its new 5G system on a chip (SoC) which aims to cut the high cost of the first wave of 5G smartphones and devices.

The speed of the Samsung Galaxy S10 was showcased on Verizon's network in Chicago recently, hitting speeds over 1Gbps. The only drawback is that the phone will cost roughly 1,000 which will be beyond the financial reach of some consumers.

MediaTek's latest SoC could rival the Qualcomm Snapdragon X55, the chipmaker's own 5G modem chip unveiled in February.

It differs in architecture, MediaTek's SoC will only focus on sub-6GHz networks, the same spectrum band on which current 4G networks run.

The holy grail of 5G speeds will come when millimetre wave (mmWave) technology becomes more prevalent, but according to EE's latest 5G roadmap, we won't see that until 2023 at the earliest.

The first wave of smartphones will only be able to access the sub-6 networks for the first few years of 5G's existence in society.

"We think the sub-6 flavour of 5G will become the high-volume, worldwide, mainstream 5G technology," said Finbarr Moynihan, general manager of international sales at MediaTek, speaking to TechRadar. "We are developing millimetre wave technology, but there's clearly a step function both in terms of devices and infrastructure around how you build a 5G millimetre wave network, and devices that support that with specialized radio capabilities."

Most current 5G chips support spectrum bands all the way up to mmWave and by cutting out all the non-essential components that enable connectivity to networks that won't exist for years, MediaTek can cut the cost of 5G phones.

"Everything about this chip is designed for the first wave of flagship 5G devices," said MediaTek President Joe Chen. "The leading-edge technology in this chipset makes it the most powerful 5G SoC announced to date and puts MediaTek at the forefront of 5G SoC design."

At a reduced price, it could be expected that the chip will only feature in mid-tier phones but Chen noted "MediaTek will power rollouts of 5G premium level devices" as well. The company hasn't said in which devices the SoC will feature first but it's likely to be Chinese devices first.

"History has shown that all new devices and services tend to command a premium," said telco analyst Paolo Pescatore. "However, the arrival of new technologies offers plentiful scope to steal a march on rivals.

"Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to be the first to launch, offer something new and stand out in a crowded market. Look at the first wave of 5G devices by brands such as OPPO, OnePlus and Xiaomi," he added.

MediaTek's own Helio M70 5G modem will feature on the SoC which will enable download speeds of up to 4.7Gbps and 2.5Gbps for uploads. It will also use "state of the art" Arm designs for its CPU and GPU components and will support 4K video encode/decode at 60fps and super high resolution (80MP) images.

"The industry, OEMs and consumers have high expectations for 5G," said Chen. "We are confident devices powered by MediaTek's 5G chipset, with its impressive architecture, leading imaging features, powerful AI and ultra-fast 5G speeds will deliver incredible experiences."

Although the cheaper chip will likely reduce the price of 5G devices, some think that MediaTek won't be the giant killer it might think it is.

"While MediaTek might claim to be the cheapest it has been forced compromise on other features," said Pescatore. "Qualcomm remains the dominant player and it is hard to see anyone knocking the US-based company off its perch."

Tomorrow marks the very first launch of 5G in the UK. Provided by EE, a select few cities will benefit from the superfast network that is capable of delivering blistering speeds faster than most household fibre lines.

The network will only be available in specific locations in the six rollout cities: London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Manchester and Birmingham. For example, highly populated outdoor areas such as the Tower of London.

Vodafone is due to launch its 5G network on 3 July in seven rollout cities, the extent of the coverage is not yet known but we can expect a similar delivery as EE's.

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