Qualcomm Looks to Tame Wireless Zoo

New IoT technologies will require new wireless connectivity, and Qualcomm wants to be the guy to sort it all out.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

February 3, 2016

6 Min Read
Qualcomm Looks to Tame Wireless Zoo

SAN DIEGO -- Qualcomm is looking at a zoo of proliferating wireless applications, and it wants to be the lion tamer.

The industry faces an explosion of new wireless applications with varying radio needs, including mobile video, connected cars, the smart home and other Internet of Things applications. Some applications require high-power, high-bandwidth connections, others require intense power conservation. In some applications, latency doesn't matter; in others latency is critical.

To meet these needs, Qualcomm and other vendors are delivering an array of new LTE, WiFi and Bluetooth technologies, leading up to the emergence of standardized 5G in 2020 as a foundation for New IP networks.

Qualcomm is working to fit it all into a simple, manageable architecture. Executives briefed technology editors and analysts on those plans at the company headquarters Tuesday.

At one extreme, some IoT devices, such as smart water meters, might wake up once per day and send a short burst of data. These devices have minimal bandwidth and latency requirements, but are demanding on power conservation -- they need to go years on a single battery, Durga Malladi, VP engineering, Qualcomm Research, said.

Figure 1: Engineering VP Durga Malladi, Qualcomm Durga Malladi, Qualcomm

At the other extreme, remote surgical procedures and drone command-and-control will require millisecond latencies -- significantly lower than today -- and high reliability, Malladi said.

In another use case, smartphones present increasing challenges. In most cases, consumers demand higher downlink than uplink speeds -- except for in some public events, such as the upcoming Super Bowl, when the reverse is true as customers upload their video and photos to social media, Malladi said.

Qualcomm is looking to deploy emerging technologies to meet these varied needs.

"Connectivity needs to be ubiquitous and seamless," Rahul Patel, Qualcomm senior vice president and general manager, connectivity, said. Devices need to select links based on applications, spectrum and context, and "deliver a user experience that makes sense to the average consumer."

Figure 2: SVP/GM Connectivity Rahul Patel, Qualcomm Rahul Patel, Qualcomm

Bluetooth and WiFi are evolving to meet emerging needs, Patel said.

  • BLE/15.4 provides low power and short range, with battery life in days and months.

  • 80.11ad/ay is extremely high capacity and high density -- operating in unlicensed spectrum up to 60GHz, with multi-gigabit wireless performance, providing connectivity better than USB cables. It's good for in-room connectivity, with full-day battery life.

  • 11ac MU MIMO/11ax permits a foundation for capacity and coverage spanning the whole house, running a day on a charge.

  • And 11ah permits ultra-low power and extended coverage, with campus-wide connectivity and battery life running months and years, Patel said.

Get the latest mobile news, analysis, and opinion on Light Reading's dedicated mobile content channel.

Another emerging WiFi technology, WiFi SON, is designed to marry the benefits of WiFi with cellular class user experience and enterprise-class network management, Patel said. WiFi SON is "self-configuring, self-managing, self-healing, and self-defending," he said. "It takes the complexity of managing the WiFi network out of my Mom's hands."

Enter LTE
Emerging LTE standards are designed to complement WiFi and Bluetooth to meet the new needs.

LTE-U brings LTE cellular technology into unlicensed spectrum. "Cellular systems have been designed to thrive on interference. Spectrum has always been scarce," Malladi said.

Next page: Reducing complexity

Emerging standards will allow carriers with LTE and carrier grade WiFi networks to operate them as a single network, where they had been two separate networks, Malladi said.

LTE-U/LAA (which stands for Licensed-Assisted Access) targets mobile operators using LTE spectrum for new small cell deployments, anchoring signals in licensed spectrum while also using unlicensed.

LTE-U critics say that LTE-U risks interfering with WiFi signals. However, Qualcomm and a major European MNO conducted an LAA trial in November, and demonstrated fair coexistence of LAA with WiFi, coverage and capacity benefits over WiFi and seamless mobility, Malladi said. On Friday, the FCC granted permission to continue field tests of LTE-U. (See LTE-U Is Nicer to WiFi Than WiFi – Qualcomm and Qualcomm Wants FCC to Stay Out of LTE-U Fray.)

Also, LTE Advanced Pro will achieve significant improvements in latency and throughput, improving user experience for real-time applications and potentially addressing new, latency-critical applications, such as command and control of drones and industrial equipment, Malladi said.

Connected cars will present an array of wireless challenges. They'll have vehicle-to-vehicle communications of position and speed, connected infotainment, realtime navigation, diagnostics, built-in WiFi hotspots, augmented reality, computer vision, immersive multimedia and more.

LTE will evolve in parallel with 5G to meet these emerging needs, with the first 5G devices becoming available in 2020, Malladi said. 5G will be in the 3.5+GHz range, with the first modems operating in multimode: 5G/4G/3G/WiFi.

Reducing complexity
Qualcomm's overall strategy is reducing complexity, in the face of emerging new technologies that run the risk of doing the opposite, says Heavy Reading analyst Steve Bell. "That is why creating an architectural approach that attempts to simplify implementation is so important," he said in an email.

"All the connection modes (LTE, TDD, UMTS, 1x, GSM, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc.) and 40-plus frequencies makes the modems very complex," Bell said. "The current architecture paradigms need to be rethought ahead of the increasing requirements of 5G or they will be impossible to implement. With such diversity of applications from premium phones to cars and diverse IoT applications, it will be impossible to keep rewriting software. They need to be looking for efficiencies via clever hardware and software architecture."

Complexity isn't Qualcomm's only problem. It's got financial troubles. The company saw sales and earnings fall sharply in the last three months of 2015, as demand declines for its mobile communications chips. Net income fell 24% to $1.5 billion year-over-year, while revenue fell 19%, to $5.8 billion. Chip shipments are expected to decline from 233 million in the first three months of 2015 to 175-195 million in the same period this year. (See Qualcomm Profits Sink on Weak Demand}.)

Investors pressured the company last year to spin off its chips unit and focus on its more valuable patents business; Qualcomm rejected the move in mid-December. (See Qualcomm Sees More Value in Staying United.)

The company unveiled a restructuring plan in July. (See Qualcomm Restructures to Cut $1.4B in Costs .)

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— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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