MediaTek debuts M80 modem, finally joining the 5G millimeter wave race

MediaTek debuts M80 modem, finally joining the 5G millimeter wave race
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Millimeter wave offers 5G the greatest potential to live up to years of “supercharged” hype, as mmWave’s gigantic swaths of open radio spectrum give carriers and countries the ability to build ultra-wide data highways, eventually enabling 10Gbps download speeds. But while Qualcomm quickly embraced mmWave across its first 5G modems and antennas, rivals lagged behind, typically citing a lack of network hardware rather than the engineering challenges required to shrink the once satellite dish-sized technology into pocket devices. Today, MediaTek announced that it’s finally debuting a 5G modem with both millimeter wave and sub-6GHz capabilities — a chip that will enable enterprise-class Intel laptops to compete with Qualcomm’s ARM-based alternatives.

MediaTek’s new M80 is an across-the-board improvement to Helio M70, which launched as a standalone modem before being integrated into the company’s Dimensity 5G system-on-chip solutions. M80 embraces everything from the latest 5G standard (Release 16) to 800MHz millimeter wave channels — the widest “lanes” currently available to stream giant truckloads of data across cellular networks. In addition to supporting DSS for 4G/5G network compatibility, the M80 modem also includes dual connectivity and carrier aggregation features for both sub-6GHz and millimeter wave frequencies. Collectively, these features promise speeds of up to 7.67Gbps for downloads and 3.76Gbps for uploads, each a little higher than numbers promised by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon X60 modem.

M80 is significant for technical decision-makers because MediaTek is Intel’s 5G modem partner for PCs, responsible for enabling the CPU maker to offer cellular solutions suitable for laptops, tablets, and potentially desktop computers. MediaTek won that position after Intel sold its own 5G modem-making division to Apple for $1 billion, following development delays largely attributable to miniaturizing millimeter wave modem and antenna technologies. The M80 gives Intel-based computers an opportunity to compete with Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx, 8c, and 7c laptops, which offer industry-leading 5G modem technology but are based on lower-performance ARM processing cores. MediaTek also expects M80 to be used in smartphones, hotspots, industrial IoT devices, and broadband modems.

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More detailed M80 specs have yet to be revealed, though MediaTek says the chip will offer high power efficiency, thanks to both network and content awareness that will enable it to reduce its power draw and improve its bandwidth utilization depending on what data it’s transmitting and where. It will also be able to remain connected to a network in a low-power standby mode, even in the absence of data activity — a benefit for “always connected” PCs and IoT devices.

MediaTek will start sampling M80 to customers “later in 2021” — no month or quarter has been revealed — and as no specific OEMs have yet been identified, it’s unclear whether M80-based devices will be available by year’s end. That said, MediaTek supplies chips for everything from LG Velvet phones to Lenovo Chromebooks, Amazon speakers, and 90% of smart TVs, opening the millimeter wave door to a wide range of potential devices. Notably, the company’s just-announced Dimensity 1100 and 1200 system-on-chip solutions will include the older M70 modem and remain limited to sub-6GHz connectivity only.

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