All of the earliest 5G networks have relied on a preliminary version of the 5G standard known as Release 15, which leaned heavily on existing 4G network infrastructure — and limitations — to deliver “non-standalone” 5G services. With Release 16 scheduled to enable standalone 5G in June 2020, T-Mobile and Taiwanese modem maker MediaTek today announced that they have completed the world’s first standalone 5G data call in a multi-vendor environment, paving the way for what some have called “true 5G” next year.
Compared with non-standalone 5G, which enables devices with 5G modems to enjoy markedly faster download speeds without commensurate improvements over 4G in uploads or latency, standalone 5G is expected to radically increase the number of applications for the new cellular technology. Ultra low latency vehicle-to-vehicle communications, real-time virtual and augmented reality, and other network responsiveness improvements will arrive with standalone 5G, as will the ability of 5G devices to quickly share their own data, such as live high-definition videos, rather than just receiving videos from the network.
T-Mobile and MediaTek note that their successful call was made using equipment from vendors mirroring the carrier’s actual 5G deployment, including gear from Ericsson, Nokia, and Cisco. The specific radio spectrum used for this call wasn’t mentioned, though MediaTek notes that it builds on an earlier 2.6GHz band standalone call using Ericsson gear in May 2019. MediaTek expects it will continue contributing to T-Mobile’s 5G network deployment efforts over the next year, helping it make inroads in the lucrative North American market.
MediaTek is notably one of Qualcomm’s chief potential competitors in supplying 5G components to handset and base station makers, though “potential” is key. Compared with Qualcomm’s 5G parts, which are coming to dozens of different 5G products, MediaTek’s Helio M70 5G modem and fully integrated 5G system-on-chip (SoC) processor have been announced, but are not yet included in any known shipping device. The M70 modem was supposed to be commercially available in 2019, and the 5G SoC is scheduled to hit phones in the first quarter of 2020.
On paper, MediaTek’s 5G components sound impressive, and even more 5G-integrated than Qualcomm’s current Snapdragon 855. The 5G SoC will include Arm’s latest Cortex-A77 CPU, Mali-G77 GPU, and a new MediaTek-developed AI processing unit, as well as the M70 modem with support for both non-standalone and standalone 5G networks, as well as 2G, 3G, and 4G networks. While the M70 is limited to sub-6GHz transmissions rather than higher-speed millimeter wave, MediaTek has promised 4.7Gbps downloads, which is plenty fast by early 5G standards.