At its Snapdragon Summit in Hawaii, Qualcomm confirmed that every phone or device that ships with a Snapdragon 865 chip will be 5G capable, despite the chip itself not having an integrated 5G modem.
No matter – the 865 will only be sold to device manufacturers with 5G compatibility, meaning any phone with it will be able to connect to a 5G mobile network. This is big news for the mobile industry as we approach 2020. Until now, 5G has been a future technology, with few phones that support it.
Now, many of 2020’s flagship Android phones will be 5G out of the box - something that might even be a surprise to some manufacturers, as less than a year ago LG suggested the LG G9 would stick to 4G, which now seems much less likely unless the company compromises on performance with a mid-tier chip.
Thankfully, Qualcomm also confirmed that this move wont force people into paying for 5G connections sooner than they’d like. All Snapdragon 865 devices will be backwards compatible with existing 4G networks, for which they will also be optimised.
Cristiano Amon, President of Qualcomm, said the company “won’t enforce” 5G functionality, even though the chipset will only be sold to handset manufacturers with the 5G X55 modem included.
“OEMs may buy the platform and choose to disable the modem,” Amon mused, but went on to insist this is very unlikely, adding that even in markets where 5G networks haven't launched operators want to have 5G phones available to sell. “We're starting to see a request for 5G-ready phones for 4G markets ... where 5G phones will be sold as a futureproof 4G technology.”
Keith Kressin, senior vice president of product management at Qualcomm, struck a similar line when asked if Android manufacturers would be able to request 4G-only 865 chips said, “The answer is no ... You can market it as 4G if you want, but the X55 also supports 5G.”
So, while you can rest assured any Snapdragon 865 phone will work on your local 4G network, Kressin added, “We’re not aware of a single [manufacturer] that’s planning to market the 865 as 4G.” This is not to assume that every phone will be plastered with 5G branding, but rather that its 5G capabilities are part of the package. Qualcomm has chosen to futureproof 865 phones for when you might want 5G down the line, and that is superb news.
But despite offering 4G as part of the deal, some at Qualcomm are more confident in 5G’s rapid uptake. Senior vice president and general manager of the Mobile Business Unit at Qualcomm Alex Katouzian said, “Most people if they're going to upgrade their phone, they're going to go to 5G.”
This strikes us as a little presumptive. Perhaps it is true for the growing US 5G coverage, but in most parts of the world the cost of 5G contracts is not worth it compared with where you can actually get a connection. Many countries in the world don’t have live commercial 5G mobile networks yet.
That might come in 2020, but the power of the handset, rather than the chip inside, is likely to shape 5G adoption. In the US, for example, many people will stay on their 4G-only iPhones for several years – even if 2020’s iPhones are 5G compatible, people hanging onto their devices will lengthen upgrade decisions.
But Apple is not a customer of Qualcomm, and perhaps the latter's assuredness comes from the high-end Android market, where users are more likely to upgrade sooner. Either way, the Snapdragon 865 is boldly supporting global 5G. It’s just good news that it won’t force you to join the party if you’re not ready.