Much of the wireless industry is currently laser focused on the upcoming Mobile World Congress trade show, scheduled for the end of this month in Barcelona, Spain, partly because that's probably where we'll see the world's first crop of really real 5G smartphones.
"In the beginning [of 5G], that's the big one," said Durga Malladi, SVP of engineering and general manager of 4G and 5G technologies at Qualcomm. "Of course it's going to take off with smartphones. That's what we know today."
But those in the wireless industry are hoping that 5G smartphones will just be the tip of the iceberg.
To explain his 5G hopes, Malladi pointed to the development path of 4G LTE. "Back in the day, when we first started talking about LTE in the standards -- I recall that because I was there, in 2004 -- we had a certain vision with what we wanted to do with LTE. But what you see with LTE today is quite different."
Whereas LTE was developed largely with smartphones in mind, Malladi pointed out that the industry has since iterated LTE into a variety of scenarios and situations, from NB-IoT versions for the internet of things to cellular V2X versions for communications among vehicles.
"That's the reason that, when we started with 5G, we said, 'You know what? We need to have a very expansive view of what we want to do with wireless in general,'" Malladi said. "And so we've always used this phrase of 'unifying connectivity fabric' for 5G. That's the mission. We didn't design 5G for just smartphones. We designed it for all of the above."
"And yes, we're going to start with smartphones," he added.
To be clear, Malladi has skin in the game. Previously at Qualcomm, Malladi was in charge of 5G research and development. For years it was Malladi's job to work with standards groups on the development of 5G technology, and to position chipmaker Qualcomm to take advantage of the commercial release of 5G.
"I'm pretty excited. After working in 5G for such a long time, it's quite something to see all this coming into place," he said.
But now that 5G has graduated from standards bodies and into the real world, Malladi's job at Qualcomm has changed too. He's still in charge of R&D, but now he's also responsible for selling Qualcomm's 5G chipsets to smartphone makers -- and others.
So what does Malladi have to say about the sale of 5G chipsets?
The phone, he said "will continue to have a very strong role." That's no surprise of course; Qualcomm recently said that its 5G chipset now counts 30 "design wins." (Meaning, it's getting installed to roughly 30 different phone models.) (See Qualcomm Teases Market With 5G SoC Sample.)
But that's just the start, Malladi said. "5G is a lot more than just mobile broadband," he said. "What we have done with the first generation of 5G standards is establish the foundation for what's to come next."
Malladi pointed to three different 5G use cases that will develop over the coming months and years:
1, Making existing services work faster. For example, he said 5G will be able to handle high-quality, 4K video over smartphones, rather than the 480p quality most operators currently transmit.
2, Making "adjacent" industries work better. For example, enterprise users will be able to always remain connected to their company's private network and cloud-based systems. "That is where the next generation of use cases, even still sticking to mobile broadband, are going to come from 5G," Malladi said. "That will change the way CIOs think about offering connectivity to their employees."
3, And finally, making the fancy stuff work. For example, ultra-low latency and ultra-reliable communications could wirelessly control industrial robots. "You're going to see a lot more of that in 2019," he said.
"This is a broad set of use cases," Malladi explained. "Our job from Qualcomm is to bring this technology to the market. We can only think of what the use cases are; we don't get to define every single one of them. That's where the rest of the industry comes in, picks it up and says, 'OK, let me run with this and see where I'm going to go.' A lot of our partners are so excited about it."
But what exactly, beyond selling chipsets to smartphone makers, does Qualcomm expect to do with its 5G products? "Every single one of our businesses right now is at a different stage of adoption of 5G," Malladi said, pointing to a few near-term opportunities beyond phones: "There's so much you can do in automotive. There's so much you can do in enterprises. There's so much you can do with small cells. And in industrial networks. What we want to do is make sure that we have the right products in place. We will always be showcasing the technology. But in addition to that we're trying to make sure we have the right products in place in all these different verticals." (See This Hospital Is Installing 5G for One Big Reason: Getting Rid of Wires.)
When pushed on the topic of where else Qualcomm might sell its 5G chips, Malladi specifically pointed to the potential for 5G to power private wireless networks for industrial or enterprise users, as well as autonomous vehicles for automotive players.
"There's a lot more to come," Malladi promised, though he declined to provide any specific financial information around Qualcomm's sales projections for 5G smartphones or other devices.
Qualcomm certainly isn't alone in pinning its hopes to 5G. Nokia, Ericsson, Intel, Huawei and other major wireless vendors are also vocal in their hope that the technology will create a groundswell of demand from customers beyond their existing clientele. But it remains to be seen whether 5G will ultimately break into new sectors like enterprise networks and autonomous automobiles. Moreover, even if 5G does create major new opportunities, it's unclear whether that will happen in the near term or whether it will be delayed by geopolitical upheavals, financial downturns or other macroeconomic events. (See Nokia CEO Warns of Sluggish 5G Growth in 2019.)