October 18, 2019
At Qualcomm, 5G is headed everywhere and into virtually everything
It was easy to call 5G inevitable. Whatever it was, some next-generation cellular technology was certain to follow 2G, 3G, and 4G into the mainstream of global life.
It was harder to predict that 5G will be omnipresent. Up until two years ago, the very idea that cellular technology would soon make its way into virtually everything -- including cars, factories, and mixed reality glasses -- was at best an engineers' fantasy, months if not years away from being accepted by people as science fact rather than science fiction.
The hardest part was engineering the components and systems -- tangible and intangible -- that will actually make 5G ubiquitous over the next five years. It's difficult to quantify the exact combination of vision, moxie, historical expertise, and human talent necessary to execute on such a strategy, say nothing of doing so on time or ahead of schedule, but I can guarantee you that if there were five companies in the world capable of such a thing, one would be at the very top of the list.
That's the reason I visited Qualcomm yesterday, spending an entire day meeting with its development teams and seeing some of their latest research projects. As the 5G era truly kicks off, I wanted to gauge the breadth of what's coming soon for myself, so that I could be prepared to cover it all.
After seven hours of demos and discussions, I was left with two impressions. What's about to become available is profoundly exciting: more performant than expected and far better than what you're accustomed to, in most regards. And no one person can be prepared to cover it all in depth. The scope of Qualcomm's 5G work alone touches so many industries and calls for such broad expertise that only a company with multiple, coordinated leaders and tens of thousands of employees could address everything.
Here's a high-level look at what's currently going on.
What a difference three years makes. In the photo above, you can see how much 5G modems have advanced through 2017, 2018, and 2019: Last year, the gigantic, heavy server rack unit on the right was miniaturized into the early Snapdragon X50 modem that fit inside a brick-like black testing unit. Then, the parts shrunk into a clear-backed 5G smartphone reference design Qualcomm showed publicly at CES early this year -- complete with radio antennas shorter than matchsticks.
Just as was the case with 4G, the first round of 5G phones have primarily been targeted at early adopters -- a point both Qualcomm and carriers carefully messaged from day one of the devices' rollouts. If you were considering jumping on board with Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G, its caveats were made clear before it even was identified by name: Early network coverage would be limited even within cities, it wouldn't work on all of a given carrier's towers, and there would be some teething pains. In the U.S., carriers presented it as a way for early users to be first to experience mobile 5G, warts and all, and that's exactly what it delivered: peak speeds of over 1Gbps, otherwise falling back hard on LTE. If the gap bothers you, that's because the difference is huge.
While some of the concerns about early devices such as the S10 5G are entirely valid, my view is that others have been sensationalized. Regardless, between software updates for existing hardware and new devices with new chips, we're about to move into 5G round two, where high-speed performance is going to become more common.
More towers, new tower software, dynamic 4G/5G spectrum sharing of sub-6GHz frequencies, and more capable phones are all coming over the next few months. That means 5G devices are going to spend more time delivering crazy fast download speeds. At least two of the top three U.S. carriers have committed to nationwide 5G in 2020, with the third expecting at least 50% population coverage, so the question isn't whether you'll have 5G in your city -- it's how soon.
The two key areas to watch for mobile 5G are advancements in indoor and outdoor performance. Twelve stories up, overlooking San Diego from the rooftop of Qualcomm's headquarters, the company is currently testing a next-generation 5G radio system called Project Pentari, capable of using beamforming to deliver outrageously fast speeds using 3.5GHz spectrum. Rather than spreading radio signals in a flashlight-style wide arc of 120 or 130 degrees, it directs 6.5-degree beams to specific receiving devices at roughly 1-mile distances, enabling multiple individual users to hit speeds ranging from 750Mbps to 3Gbps depending on the system's configuration.
Qualcomm also continues to be bullish on even higher-performance millimeter wave 5G, which it's now advancing with longer-range antenna capabilities -- a topic I'll address in the next two sections.
Indoor mobile 5G
Indoor venues hosting masses of people -- transportation hubs, public venues, and office buildings -- are the other key areas where Qualcomm is conspicuously working to improve mobile 5G performance. The goal is to effectively blanket your favorite subway stations, airports, stadiums, and other gathering spaces with strong 5G coverage, and to that end, the company has found that simply placing millimeter wave cells in the same indoor locations as Wi-Fi base stations yields solid coverage.
As the image above shows, that strategy enables comprehensive 5G service across a 42,750-square-meter convention center hall in Barcelona with zero dead zones, while capitalizing on the Fira Gran Via's existing wired backhaul infrastructure. Similar deployments in an underground Beijing subway station and an indoor office environment are yielding nearly 98% coverage while providing total network download throughput in the 15Tbps range -- more than enough for dozens of employees or hundreds of people to share, each enjoying super-fast performance.
Home and office broadband
Several years ago, the idea of relying on a cellular connection for home broadband was all but laughable -- between the likelihood of low LTE speed and the vagaries of connections in some areas, you'd have a better chance of losing in Russian roulette than winning in using a 4G connection for home or office internet access. Your odds are much, much better with 5G. Speeds are dramatically higher, rivaling or exceeding what people get from typical wired broadband packages, and the modem hardware is getting a lot more powerful.
The reference design above illustrates how Qualcomm will be advancing home and office cellular broadband over the next year. That's a 5G outdoor unit, designed to be mounted outside your home as the replacement for what cable companies call "last mile" wired connectivity -- the painful process of actually showing up at each house and physically grafting a new cable onto the existing wired network. Instead, this wireless box just gets installed outside akin to a (small) satellite dish, and you connect your Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or other access point so all your existing devices can share the 1Gbps+ 5G connection.
Qualcomm's biggest news on this front is that it has just dramatically boosted the range of the millimeter wave 5G antennas in these devices, enabling connectivity somewhere between a kilometer and a mile at normal elevations, depending on common obstructions; even longer distances are possible at greater, unobstructed heights.
While much of millimeter wave's early focus has been on population-dense urban environments and gathering places, the company strongly believes that the hardware can serve rural customers, as well. People on rock-laden or otherwise challenging land could benefit from high-bandwidth point-to-point wireless connections -- assuming that carriers (including smaller tier 2 names) work to bring that quality of connectivity to their customers. Qualcomm has the technology ready for companies that are ready to step up and adopt it.
The best thing I can say about the current state of Qualcomm's mixed reality hardware is something that may sound less impressive than it actually is, but if you hear it in the voice of Apple's late founder Steve Jobs, you'll get my meaning:
It just works.
We've been teased for years by the "coming soon" prospect of wireless mixed reality that is indistinguishable from wired mixed reality, and in turn, barely distinguishable from actual reality. No one knew how and when all the technology pieces would come together, but within the XR industry, there wasn't any doubt that it would happen -- incrementally but eventually.
For VR at least, the time is now. Qualcomm demonstrated a live, completely wireless XR reference headset that was streaming low latency, high-resolution video direct over Wi-Fi from a server elsewhere in the building. You can't look inside the lightweight goggles as I did, but the split-screen display above shows you basically what I was seeing: PC-caliber stereoscopic 3D graphics that were noticeably better than what's possible with the just-released Oculus Quest, while similarly freed from any cables for tracking or power.
There's significant technology behind this: There was no obvious artifacting or degradation in the video, no perceptible lag, and a tight integration between the Snapdragon-based client headset's positional data and the server's transmission of data. While 60GHz Wi-Fi appears to be the current wireless technology of choice for XR, the next move is to 5G.
Qualcomm's Hiren Bhinde told me that the company's support for OEMs interested in its reference headset is so comprehensive -- from software stack to component sourcing and manufacturing partners -- that a product can go from reference design to market in as little as four months, assuming the OEM hits the ground running. It's up to the OEM to provide the content, experience, and third-party developer support for the device, but if your favorite company wanted to offer an XR headset, it could go from zero to something in less than a year.
The company has been steadily iterating on the core elements of the extended reality experience since it decided to pursue the business, and realized over time that AI -- too often an industry buzzword -- will actually have significant roles in every part of the XR experience. Computer vision and machine learning empower a device's spatial awareness for scene mapping and user tracking, while AI also plays roles in audio processing for voice input and output, among other features.
Going forward, Qualcomm is expecting that AI will also power visible Alexa-like virtual assistants within apps and agents in VR games, as well as enabling the sort of real-time AR language translation and keynote presentation-caliber avatar capabilities Microsoft recently showed off in its HoloLens 2 demo. I'm personally quite excited for the next stage of Snapdragon-powered AR glasses, but that's a topic for another time.
Automotive and C-V2X
Without diving too deep into this topic, I'll note that what Qualcomm's working on for connected cars is equally fascinating and exciting -- though as the company's Carl Ormond told me, it's largely a question of when the technologies I saw will make it into cars, not whether they're coming. The automotive industry currently operates on a five-year lag, such that a solution developed today won't start showing up in production vehicles until 2024. So even though futuristic instrument panels, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, and next-level autonomous driving were already underway a year or two ago, several more years may pass before we see them into cars.
What's coming? Imagine unlocking and starting your car with a 3D face scan and fingerprint rather than a key. Picture 5G smartphone-style apps for communication and tablet-style maps directly in your field of view -- perhaps even embedded in your steering wheel -- rather than on a center console screen or in your pocket. Then understand that everything from mobile communications to your interactions with the road and other vehicles will be tied together wirelessly, using a mix of vehicle-to-vehicle, vehicle-to-infrastructure, vehicle-to-network, and vehicle-to-pedestrian protocols.
One of Qualcomm's demos showed a car using human body recognition and machine learning to predict when people would cross a crosswalk, conveying that information both to the driver and nearby connected cars. Armed with predictive and actual information, the closest car could automatically stop before hitting a person, while the cars behind it could know to slow down or stop rather than causing a chain collision. Another demo showed a car sharing turn signal intent and pedestrian crossing information with a crosswalk, enabling the driver and nearby traffic signal to know when it was safe for people or vehicles to move.
I don't believe that car accidents will become a thing of the past any time soon. But as advance warning technologies make their way into cars, and cars become capable of sharing those warnings automatically with other cars, roads are going to be a lot safer for drivers, passengers, and pedestrians than they've been in decades.
Another topic I'll only briefly touch upon is one that is overwhelmingly large: the use of 5G in industrial settings. Last year, Qualcomm said that it was working on 5G solutions for factory automation that would enable robots to operate wirelessly rather than requiring Ethernet cables. It sounds easy until you realize that the robots operate at superhuman speeds as parts of assembly lines, such that milliseconds and even individual data packet-level mistakes actually matter, so manufacturing companies aren't willing to accept "good enough."
They demand 99.9999% reliability, ideally such that if there are packet loss errors, they never come two in a row. That level of precision means that a factory won't need to shut down its production lines, a level of failure that manufacturers won't tolerate with any frequency. To accomplish that, Qualcomm is using multiple 5G radios within industrial settings to guarantee that robots will receive orders at all times, regardless of obstructions that might be moving around inside the work areas. These radios can operate not only for industrial automation, but also to process data for security cameras, AR headsets, edge computers, handheld terminals, guided vehicles such as forklifts, and sensors operating within the space.
The chart above shows how an ultra-reliable 5G system will work. A two-base station system can achieve over 99.95% reliability, such that 37,000 data packets out of 86.4 million will be lost in a 24 hour period, while a more redundant four-base station system will be over 99.9999% reliable, losing only 50 of the 86.4 million packets in the same time. Critically, none of those 50 packets will be consecutive, so they're not show-stoppers that require the factory to pause production.
Industrial IoT isn't sexy, and its importance can be hard to explain. But when a company that once took six months to reconfigure its production lines due to cabling and related physical considerations can now switch everything up in six days with portable wireless devices, that means new things you want can get made faster. And better.
No two images I could share with you illustrate the point I'm about to make better than the ones immediately above and below these words. While Qualcomm is largely known for chips that power increasingly important products, its chip development is backed by a combination of engineering R&D and patent licensing -- both for products that made it to market and succeeded, as well as ones that you've never heard of but paved the way for future innovations.
For average users like us, 5G is a done deal -- a basically solved challenge inside a glass and metal box that can be enjoyed without knowing any of the work or parts that make it possible. But Qualcomm exists specifically for the purpose of thinking about and solving technical challenges years before most people even realize that there were problems worth addressing.
As I looked at testing rigs and demo areas, I couldn't help but think about the human labor and ingenuity involved in developing them. Consider just the big blue box above: Putting aside the magic that's happening inside, look at the back, and you'll see that someone needed to physically attach each of the cables to support its massive array of antennas. That's just one box at one site, and who can count the number of such boxes, tests, failures, and small successes even a single technology needs before it's ready to fit in your pocket?
"That's the thing about research," Qualcomm senior VP of engineering Durga Malladi told me. "When a certain technology, even though it stands on its own merit ... still doesn't take off, the reason for that is very likely that it's ahead of its time. And it takes a long time."
One example: Peer-to-peer device communication was created and offered to cellular carriers over a decade ago, but no one adopted it. After an extended period of reflection, Malladi said, "we were thinking about it, and we said, maybe it's not yet ready for devices. But what if instead of devices, we call these devices 'vehicles?' That was the origin of V2X, vehicles communicating with each other" and more.
Flash forward to today, and "there's lots of activity in that space, large scale trials" with Ford and so much of the automotive industry on board, Malladi said. Years after the concept seemed destined for obscurity, cars are being tested with the feature, and even the original vision is apparently generating interest. "So you've just got to keep the faith. If there's one thing that you learn in research, it's patience."
The labor for such endeavors is measured in years and tens of thousands of people, while costs are measured in the billions of dollars. Qualcomm isn't the only company (see: Huawei and Nokia) that does this R&D or works to develop cellular standards, but its contributions are qualitatively significant, and its investments of personnel, money, and time have been massive. Consequently, it collects licensing fees from companies that want to use its innovations in their products, generally as a fixed percentage of the product's sales, but capped such that it doesn't make twice as much royalty on an $800 phone as it does on a $400 phone -- instead, the royalty's the same in each case.
Licensing has been a somewhat controversial part of the Qualcomm story because a few licensees -- most notably Apple -- have publicly balked at letting licensing fees cut too much into their own profit margins, even though that's just a cost of using innovations someone else spent the labor, money, and time to develop. Yet my sense is that recouping R&D costs through licensing has enabled Qualcomm to look forward and enter new markets without the fear that its only compensation will be for chips that can become commoditized.
Based on my visit yesterday, it's clear that 5G isn't just going to touch a lot of markets over the next few years; it is indeed going to transform them. And while it's certainly worth watching what other wireless and system-building companies are going to do in the 5G space, my belief is that Qualcomm is the one best positioned to lead it for the foreseeable future.