5G is a battery killer, but one company has a secret weapon

MediaTek

MediaTek was late to adopt 4G LTE for its range of mobile processors, admits the Taiwanese company’s CEO Rick Tsai, a veteran of the industry who has worked for Taiwan’s Chungwa Telecom and TSMC, among others. However, it has no intention of making the same mistake with 5G. It’s also approaching the next big thing in mobile connectivity in a different way to its competitors, which may give it an interesting competitive advantage.

Digital Trends visited the firm’s headquarters in Taiwan to understand more about its approach. TL Lee, who has worked at MediaTek for 15 years and is currently the firm’s general manager for mobile, revealed its secret weapon to ensure it’s at the forefront of the 5G race — a 5G-capable system-on-a-chip (SOC) that takes up substantially less space inside a device, and doesn’t have the same high degree of power needs as others. This means phones won’t have to become giant, doorstep-thick blocks to accommodate big batteries and complex antenna arrays. It’ll arrive in 2020, after tests in 2019.

5G mmWave

The only 5G product we’ve seen so far comes from Motorola, and is a Moto Mod add-on for its Moto X device. It looks like a big, external battery pack, and it is; but it also has a large antenna array inside. The Moto Mod will connect to 5G networks using a system called Millimeter Wave, or mmWave, the 5G standard most U.S. carriers are putting in place for the forthcoming launch.

It’s not exactly a cellular system as we know it, and will instead rely on a network of 5G Wi-Fi routers to connect mobile devices to the new high-speed networks.

It’s not exactly a cellular system as we know it, and will instead rely on a network of 5G Wi-Fi routers to connect mobile devices to the new high-speed networks. The antennas and associated paraphernalia do not fit inside a modern phone without significant modification, resulting in larger, thicker phones and bigger batteries to cope with the power demands. TL Lee called mmWave, “technically challenging, especially for smartphones.”

MediaTek spends $1.8 billion annually on research and development, with Tsai saying 5G has been a major part of this for a while: “We put 10 times the resources into it since mid last year, and revised the strategy,” he said. What is the strategy for dealing with mmWave for now? Simply, it won’t use it yet. It’s going to continue working on developing mmWave technology, but believes the first few a years of 5G mobile connectivity will be dominated by an alternative technology called Sub-6GHz. Regardless of both facilitating a 5G connection, they’re quite different.

MedaTek backs Sub-6GHz 5G

So why Sub-6GHz? Tsai was very confident and answered, “That’s where the market will be for 5G for the next two to four years, while the demand increases for MmWave.”

MediaTek

Sub-6 5G is being adopted in China, Asia, and Europe, which Tsai called, “the most important regions for 5G in 2020 and 2021,” and is technically similar to adding 4G LTE to a phone. The amount of additional space over current chips is minimal, allowing designs to remain similar to today, and with similar capacity batteries. 5G will consume a lot of power, more than 4G LTE, and strong batteries will be essential. MediaTek prides itself on the power efficiency of its chips already, which indicates the new 5G SOC won’t be a power-hungry beast either.

A report from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) recently showed the amount of Sub-6GHz spectrum being allocated for global 5G use, which was currently greater than mmWave, showing MediaTek is in-line with operators bidding on and developing spectrum in its decision.

Early trade-off

However, the fact remains the new MediaTek 5G chip only supports Sub-6GHz, and not mmWave. TL Lee called 5G, “critical for the whole business;” but if the new chip only supports Sub-6GHz, isn’t that shortsighted? The decision is a trade-off, he said, and targeting the larger populations in its already popular markets of China and Europe, will help it grab the nascent 5G rush that it mostly missed with 4G LTE.

Like everything 5G related, speed is of the essence.

He called 5G a, “level playing field,” at the moment, with all manufacturers working at a similar pace and towards the same goal. “It will take strong cooperation between networks, device makers and SOC makers to make 5G work,” he told us.

Sub-6 is top of MediaTek’s list now, but it’s not ignoring mmWave: “Both are being worked on,” Lee confirmed, showing MediaTek is grasping the chance to get in early with 5G, and also planning ahead while the technology for it matures. It’s not solely device difficulties that make Sub-6GHz the shrewd choice. CEO Tsai voiced financial concerns too, saying, “Investment may not be recovered [in 5G] by concentrating solely on MmWave.”

MediaTek’s competitor Qualcomm is also developing both Sub-6GHz and mmWave antennas for future 5G devices.

Technology leader

Like everything 5G related, speed is of the essence. Based on its 4G LTE misstep, can MediaTek keep up with the pace? Rick Tsai talked about major changes in the company’s thinking. Humility is at the firm’s heart, but it doesn’t want to be just another player — which it could have been viewed as over the past few years — it wants to be a technology leader, and these ambitions start at the very top — Tsai included. “Our mobile business has turned a corner,” he said, “and we are investing in 5G to become a market leader.”

mediatek 5g plans testing
Mediatek

In 2019 MediaTek will test its new Helio M70 5G modem with global carriers, a chipset eventually destined for non-smartphone devices. MediaTek has ambitions in the automotive sector, where 5G will also play a big role, and already owns the smart speaker and smart TV market. You may not be aware, but everything from the Amazon Echo Dot to your Sony Android TV already has a MediaTek processor inside it.

The already announced Helio M70 will precede a currently unnamed 5G mobile SOC, and MediaTek intends to demonstrate its 5G ability at 2019’s Mobile World Congress technology show. After this, it expects the first wave of consumer phones to be available during the second half of 2020, with plans for Europe and the U.S. within a year later.

Low cost, high performance

While this sounds like a long time away, don’t forget that 5G itself isn’t expected to be widely available until this time anyway. MediaTek also fully expects the mobile devices with its 5G chips to cost less than $350, making them very reasonably priced.

Rick Tsai is aware of the hype around 5G, and spoke animatedly about its potential use cases. He talked about, “geniuses,” creating uses for 5G that we have not thought of yet, in the same way many did when 4G LTE replaced 3G. Low latency’s potential, “has not even been scratched yet,” he said, and expects this to be where disruption will be most obvious in the future, mentioning mobile VR and AR, and autonomous cars.

MediaTek will be inside the first wave of 5G products, Tsai confirmed, emphasizing that compared to the company’s pace for 4G, it’s right on target to play a major role in its highly anticipated, and potentially world-changing replacement.

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