LG, Mediatek Break Qualcomm's Hold on Sprint With LG X Power

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Move over, Qualcomm. There's a new modem in town, and it has finally broken through to Sprint. This could mean the eventual arrival of cheaper phones that support all four US carriers, a long-held goal of phone fans.

The new LG X Power on Sprint and Boost costs $149 and runs the Mediatek Helio P10 chipset, a midrange chipset similar to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 series. The most important aspect of the new release, though, is that the phone uses Mediatek's own modem, which supports CDMA, GSM, and dual-carrier LTE.

LG X Power for SprintThe X Power for Sprint, which is a different phone from the global X Power and from the existing X Power for Cricket, has a 5.3-inch 720p screen, 1.8GHz processor, 8-megapixel and 5-megapixel cameras, and a very large 4,100mAh battery. While Cricket's model has a Qualcomm processor and modem, and the global model does not support CDMA, the Sprint one uses Mediatek with CDMA.

Although this is a Sprint-only phone, the P10's modem could support all four US carriers once it's cleared by Verizon, which should happen in October, according to Mediatek VP Mohit Bhushan.

Right now, only Qualcomm makes modems cleared by Sprint and Verizon for CDMA use, and Qualcomm's products are famously premium priced. If phone manufacturers want to turn to another modem maker—as Apple seems to have done with Intel for half of its iPhone 7 units—they lose the ability to work on Sprint's and Verizon's networks.

"As of today, Qualcomm and Mediatek are the only two SOC (system-on-chip) suppliers for mobile phones that have all the modes," Bhushan said.

The LG X Power shows that stranglehold is loosening, which may mean cheaper, multi-carrier unlocked phones in the future (or just cheaper prepaid phones on the Sprint network.) Low-cost unlocked phone maker Blu, for instance, has a strong relationship with Mediatek but has not made any Sprint or Verizon compatible phones as of yet.

"It now becomes more of a forward product planning decision for our customers," Mediatek GM of corporate sales Finbarr Moynihan said.

The P10's modem can't compete with Qualcomm's finest, the X12 modem in flagship phones like the iPhone 7, HTC 10, and Samsung Galaxy S7. It lacks the latest network features being trumpeted by the US carriers such as 3-carrier aggregation, 256 QAM, and 4x4 MIMO, in part because the approval process has taken so long and been so grueling, Bhushan said.

"From start to finish, the chipsets can be anywhere from a nine- to 12-month job, and the devices would be another nine months," Bhushan said. But future chipsets may go through the process more quickly, he said, and the company's next-generation modem will enter certification in October.

"We are opening up choice for not only US operators, but consumers, with a lot of devices in all price points and tiers," Bhushan said.

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