Qualcomm and Vivo announced today that they have succeeded in creating a key component for upcoming 5G cellular devices — a unified antenna system that supports both ultra high-bandwidth millimeter wave transmissions and more common midband transmissions in the sub-6GHz range. Though the announcement is technical, it signals the dawn of small devices that will work on different types of 5G networks, automatically switching to whatever frequency is available.

Next-generation 5G cellular networks will be built using multiple radio frequencies, ranging from low-frequency 700MHz to midband frequencies in the 1-6GHz ranges to millimeter wave frequencies above 20GHz — the latter of which is entirely new to cellular devices. Unlike lower frequencies, millimeter wave promises peak data rates 10-20 times better than 4G/LTE, which the companies note will be particularly useful for AR, VR, AI, and ultra-high definition video transmission. But not every cell tower will have millimeter wave hardware; carriers will use low- and midband hardware to provide 5G service in many places.

As forecasted earlier this year, integrating complex millimeter wave antennas into small devices has been one of the “major design challenges” for manufacturers. At Mobile World Congress, Intel showed an antenna system housed in a thick kickstand as a possible solution, while Qualcomm and others have promised millimeter wave antennas small and robust enough to fit inside handheld phones. Absent a pocket-sized millimeter wave antenna system, handheld devices might only be able to work on lower and likely slower frequencies.

“After this successful completion of 5G mm-Wave antenna design and measurement based on a Vivo commercial form factor,” said Vivo antenna director Dr. Huan-Chu Huang, “consumers will soon see the next round of new device designs offering superior performance benefits and a taste of the next generation mobile experience.”

Qualcomm and Vivo note that 5G sub-6GHz and millimeter wave technologies are expected to be deployed in every major market around the world between 2019 and 2020. Theoretical work on 5G devices began years ago but kicked into high gear in 2018, thanks to the approval of international 5G standards. Early 5G hotspot “pucks” are expected to appear by the end of this year, with 5G smartphone availability beginning in 2019.