MediaTek’s 5G Chip Speeds the Mid-Tier Market

But lack of sub-6 GHz support may weaken appeal in some markets

On Wednesday 29 June, Taiwan-based semiconductor-maker MediaTek announced a 5G system-on-chip (SoC) that the company claims will enable a new wave of 5G flagship devices. The SoC’s processor is based on Arm’s recent Cortex-A77 CPU architecture, uses the Mali-G77 GPU for better graphics and artificial intelligence (AI) processing, and is manufactured on the latest 7 nm process. To further accelerate AI workloads, MediaTek has also embedded its own artificial-intelligence processing unit.

At the 5G heart of the SoC is MediaTek’s Helio M70 modem for cellular connectivity, enabling up to 4.7 Gbps download and 2.5 Gbps upload speeds on 5G networks. The modem also supports 2G, 3G and 4G connections and both standalone and non-standalone 5G modes of operation.

A key point to highlight here is that the chipset supports only those 5G frequency bands below 6 GHz. MediaTek has chosen to omit support for millimetre-wave bands, which operate above 6 GHz. Although 5G was designed from the ground up to support such high-frequency spectrum, which can provide fantastic throughput and low latency, it has fewer practical applications owing to its limited propagation properties. It also comes with significant additional complexity and engineering demands.

MediaTek is wisely focussing on sub-6 GHz in its first generation 5G SoC, prioritizing quicker availability and lower cost. However, the chip-maker has also stated that its second-generation 5G chip will similarly omit millimetre-wave support. This underlines that there’s a technical barrier to its inclusion as much as a practical one. In this respect, Qualcomm remains the undisputed leader in delivering 5G modem technology on a large scale.

MediaTek and device-makers know that the world of 5G is currently suffering from a split-personality disorder, with the majority of 5G markets outside the US leaning on sub-6 GHz frequencies for faster and wider roll-out of 5G services.

This isn’t to say that millimetre wave isn’t important — it’s a crucial technology as networks need more and more capacity, particularly in densely populated locations. We expect most networks to deploy a mix of high-, mid- and low-band spectrum for 5G at some point.

MediaTek is addressing the masses with its mid-range SoC. The lack of support for frequencies above 6 GHz means MediaTek won’t be addressing the US market in a meaningful way, and even Chinese players looking to play globally are more likely to favour Qualcomm. However, MediaTek’s new chipset adds competition to the 5G component market and should help bring down the price of phones, especially in markets where support of millimetre wave isn’t needed. The Taiwanese chip company is undoubtedly relishing opportunities in the Chinese market.

There’s an inevitable elitism surrounding 5G at present. This is the case with all new technologies, and top smartphone brands have managed to make the high prices stick, despite weakened global demand and products that are becoming a commodity. Yet the rising prices of some smartphones are a sensitive subject for the average consumer, and it’s having a clear effect on sales.

MediaTek’s press release might stress that its 5G SoC is designed for flagship devices, but in reality it’ll be used in mid-range smartphones. By the end of this year and in 2020, we’ll see an abundance of less-exclusive 5G devices around $600. While not bargain-basement pricing, this will help normalize 5G and accelerate its adoption.

The price of phones has been cited by many as a barrier to the take-up of 5G. Network economics, competition and the combination of subsidy and incentives will ensure 5G soon finds consumers, whether they’re looking for it or not.