Qualcomm Sparks the Next Phase of 5G With the World’s First 5G Advanced-Ready Modem-RF System
On this episode of the Futurum Tech Webcast – Interview Series, I am joined by Ignacio Contreras, Senior Director Product Marketing at Qualcomm Technologies to talk about AI, next generation modem technology, and more.
In our conversation, we discussed the following:
- Qualcomm’s latest modem, Snapdragon X75
- The modem’s AI capabilities
- The industries that can leverage the Snapdragon X75 and modem-RF system
- Top benefits for OEMs and their consumers
Watch the video of our conversation here:
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Daniel Newman: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Futurum Tech Podcast. I’m your host, Daniel Newman, founding partner, principal analyst at Futurum Research. In this episode, we’re going to be talking about RF systems, we’re going to be talking about AI, we’re going to talk about next generation modem technology and so much more with my friend and regular on the Futurum Tech Podcast, Ignacio Contreras de Qualcomm.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes, Dan.
Daniel Newman: I practiced my Spanish when I was at Mobile World Congress, so I’m getting a little bit better.
Ignacio Contreras: What do you know? Okay.
Daniel Newman: Yeah. I studied it for many years, by the way. I just don’t use it enough. So it’s fun when you go back to Spain and you try to get back to using it. But we’re now moving into the future. So first of all, welcome back. How have you been? How was this show for you? Are you doing well?
Ignacio Contreras: Dan, it’s great to see you again right after November, last Snapdragon Summit. And no, everything has been doing great. Very, very active, of course. And now, always raising the bar in terms of what it means to connect to 5G, always pushing the boundaries and bringing along the industry on this new generation. Now it seems to be the standard generation, right, of solar technology, but there’s always position to do more and new things.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, there’s so much going on. And of course, in our lives, mobile technology is basically one of those things that from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed, it influences everything we do. The way we shop, the way we live, the way we communicate, the way we work. So making sure that connectivity is good is technically much more difficult than most people realize. And it’s been a massive engine of growth for you at Qualcomm.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes, and the way I like to relate connectivity is like the air, right, that fuels our experiences. Many people don’t even realize that’s around you, but that you assume that it’s there until it’s lacking. And when you are lacking air, you realize if you’re in the mountain, climbing, you start breathing, okay? That something’s going wrong and everything, alerts go on. That’s your mobile device, right, when it’s not connecting well to the network, when it’s not receiving your video call, when you cannot just upload the picture in social media, or now video, right, in social media. It’s invisible until it’s lacking. So yes, we always need to continue to improve the wireless technology so we can provide more oxygen, more air to our everyday experiences.
Daniel Newman: It’s a great analogy because I think people out there would definitely think about times when they can’t get connectivity. And by the way, it’s become more and more rare, but when you can’t get connected, or now when you can’t get enough data, because those are the two things. It’s like, “I can’t download this app,” or, “I can’t get this file to open.” I mean, it’s miserable. And I’m sure you are working on making sure that that never happens globally with the operators around the world, with the handset and device makers, and now, of course, the company’s moved into industrial and automotive and so many places to keep people connected.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. Dan, you said so, it’s more rare, right? But it’s more rare not because of magic, it’s more rare because the whole industry, including us, always keep thinking on what can be done better. Can we introduce new technology? How we can use the latest and greatest AI and any other advancements to make that connectivity better. But there’s always need for more, and people keep using more and more data. So we see always the bar moving and moving, and we just keep rising and rising. We don’t see end for this, but it’s what we have to do.
Daniel Newman: Ignacio, let’s talk about modems a little bit.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes.
Daniel Newman: Your latest modem, it’s driving a number of firsts. It’s been a absolute game changer. Many of the device makers and OEMs are committing to your newest technologies, and of course, it’s a huge growth engine for Qualcomm. Just talk a little bit about what you did with this newest modem, what it’s driving, and why it’s being received so well in the marketplace.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. Well, every year, we introduce a new modem-RF system. And while we do that, we basically set the… It’s like a lighthouse for the industry in terms of where things are going with regards of 5G. Where the industry need to prepare in terms of phone manufacturers, infrastructure vendors, what will be new features that will, again, enhance our connectivity and make more rare cases of when we are lacking that air, that connectivity around us.
So we just introduced our new Snapdragon X75 Modem-RF system. I have it here, right? This very, very little thing carries a number of new capabilities that are far larger in importance versus the size of this chip, and introduce a number of new industry first, and we’re rising yet again what it means to be connected using 5G.
Give you one example. Usually we introduce our modem-RF system to what’s next steps in 5G. 5G, every 18 months or so, there’s a new version of 5G. It’s not something static. So we had first, the release 15 specifications of 5G, and then we introduced a modem-RF for that. Then we had release 16. Now we’re finishing release 18.
But this year, we did something different. We went not just one step ahead, but two steps ahead. The step ahead is release 17 specifications of 3GPP. But now we introduce the modem-RF that’s ready for release 18 3GPP specifications, what’s called 5G-Advanced. So we’re now accelerating how fast we bring these innovations to user hands, because after pandemic, every call is a video call, every meeting is a video meeting. Wherever you are, people is not uploading picture, they’re uploading videos. So there’s no more need for more innovation, and now we are ready, again, not just one, but two steps ahead.
Daniel Newman: I think everybody that went through the 4G cycle remembers how big of a difference it was too when we went from 4G to advanced, and it changed our lives. And in a lot of cases, I mean, early iterations of 5G, some of the best 4G LTE deployments still were really matched in terms of experience. And I think to some extent, this is where people were like, “Well, is 5G really going to do what it says?” And this is you right now at Qualcomm, kind of getting ahead of the curve of saying, “We’ve really only started to see.”
When I was at Mobile World, it was interesting, a lot of people I talked to were saying things like, “We’re in the late cycles of 5G.”
Ignacio Contreras: No, no, no, no. No.
Daniel Newman: And absolutely corrected every single one of them. I think the point is we’re still in very early implementations of 5G and the potential for what it’s going to do. People will soon realize how powerful it is and how much different the experience is going to be than 4G LTE.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. And how many things will be connected with 5G, right?
Daniel Newman: Yes.
Ignacio Contreras: Because this little thing here is not just for phones. It will come, right, and will power any generation of phones with 5G and 5G-Advanced capabilities, but then it moves into could be fixed wireless access. So when you’re replacing fiber or cable in your house with a 5G connection, right, so you have more choices in terms of internet access. It is the fundamental technologies that will connect next generation cars. It will connect mobile hotspot. PCs. Now, again, everything is connected. So this, again, modem-RF system, the X75, has been designed with purpose. Not just to power one kind of devices, but rise the bar in terms of 5G and bring 5G-Advanced to all kind of things.
Daniel Newman: So I want to close out and move to AI for a minute, but I do want to say one thing to everybody out there is I don’t think the market always appreciates how hard a modem-RF system is, and I think this has been, in my opinion, one of the great differentiators. Qualcomm has been the ability to build that technology. And there’s certain companies out there that have absolutely even tried to do it on their own and have not been able to. And it’s proven time and time again that RF, incredibly complicated. And in the 5G era, the relationship between modem and RF is massive.
Ignacio Contreras: That’s why we call it modem-RF. It’s inseparable, right? Because-
Daniel Newman: But hard to do.
Ignacio Contreras: It’s very hard to do. And I think 10 years ago, it was even more unknown, like the unsung hero, right, of mobile technology. Now there’s a little more recognition. But a lot of the recognition now you realize comes from the companies that have failed, right? In time to time. Many companies realize-
Daniel Newman: Big.
Ignacio Contreras: …that it’s not that easy, particularly, again, when the bar is rising every time in terms of what we need to bring because the demand for more connectivity.
Daniel Newman: Big, incredibly well known companies that people would expect to have been able to do it, have struggled, and it’s been something that Qualcomm’s been able to continue to deliver and it’s something as an analyst that I’ve looked at the market and said, “This is something that really stands out for Qualcomm.”
I want to move to AI. Your CEO, Cristiano Amon, probably in the moments I had with him most recently, that was a thing that was on his mind. If you kind of look out in the media and what everyone’s talking about, maybe it’s generative AI, but AI kind of lives everywhere. And at the edge and on device, in a vehicle or for an IoT, the chipset that’s going to enable AI is going to be critical.
Now, you’ve got the Gen 2 AI processor. Talk a little bit about Qualcomm’s sort of overall approach with AI and what’s going on with this Gen 2 AI processor.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. AI is a pivotal horizontal technology that’s going into all kind of components or systems that any chip maker, in particular Qualcomm, will develop. We use AI in our cameras to make pictures look more beautiful. We use AI in audio. We use AI in a number of things, and we use AI on 5G as well.
Ultimately, yes, last year, which was our first generation of 5G modem-RF systems with AI capabilities, but these will not end ever. Now AI and 5G are interlocked forever.
Daniel Newman: Like RF.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes, exactly. To make, again, your connection better. For instance, things that you can do, you have a 5G millimeter wave connection, for instance. The very high-throughput connection. You have a beam, right? That’s connecting your phone with the base station. But at any time, there are multiple beam candidates. So as you move, you might move to another beam to sustain that connection as you move along.
We are using AI not to select the best beam at the moment, but to predict what will be the next beam one moment after. We’re taking in consideration even the orientation of the phone, right, and using AI to say, “Okay, intelligently, one moment after this will be the beam that we need to use.” And we are increasing with that or measure the increase in terms of performance and reliability of the millimeter wave connection.
We are even using AI on the modem-RF for things like location. If you are in San Francisco, or New York City, or any major… Or Grand Canyon, now we can understand with AI if the signal that you’re receiving from the GPS or GNSS, you have direct visibility to the satellite or not. And therefore, you can discard, right, when you have a signal that’s coming just from a reflection, and therefore, have faster and more accurate positioning.
So these will never end. I think AI is part of all… Everything that’s computing and technology will include AI. In the case of modem-RF system, we see that so far that we introduced now hardware acceleration on the AI. So we committed part of the chip just to do these AI capabilities because they will be needed for what will be the future 5G and 5G-Advanced.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, the trend of using the course for AI specific workloads continues to grow. A lot can be done in software, but some things, it’s better if it’s done hardware. And of course, the more capacity and throughput you have on the system, the more you can do then on top of it with software. It’s additive.
What you mentioned here is kind of important that people discern, because I think a lot of people think of AI merely as things like NLP. They think about AI sensors for photography. They think about things like ray tracing and gaming. That’s where AI’s being used, but there’s so many smart utilizations and things like analytics that can help, like you said, wave beamforming. And of course, like I said, nobody thinks about the fact that, “Oh my gosh, I am connected all the time and I have a good connection all the time.”
How did that happen? It’s not magic. It takes a lot of sensing to make this great, what you’re going to call, this 5G-Advanced thing work all the time. AI is going to be critical. And also, AI could be, in the long run, things like using the RAN and the efficiency on the RAN. I know this isn’t exactly what you’re doing with your system, but the ability to kind of help things like sustainability. AI’s going to help with-
Ignacio Contreras: Yes, for energy efficiency, of course.
Daniel Newman: I think 2% or 3% of the world’s power is being used by operators, meaning that it’s a huge percentage. And again, carbon neutral. They’re trying to minimize their footprint, they’re trying to be more sustainable, and AI can help.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. And one thing, for instance, you can use AI for the modem, for the 5G connection, but why we introduce hardware acceleration, right, on the modem-RF system, it’s because you require… It’s not big models. It’s not that it’s very complex sometimes AI like you have in ChatGPT or these other big models, Stable Diffusion that we have demonstrated on device.
Daniel Newman: That was fun, by the way.
Ignacio Contreras: Yeah, it was great. It’s very fun.
Daniel Newman: I did a leprechaun, or was it a… I did a unicorn in a wheat field.
Ignacio Contreras: The unicorn?
Daniel Newman: It was pretty cool.
Ignacio Contreras: Okay. I love… I know cats playing soccer. Something-
Daniel Newman: Yeah, I tried that one too. I tried that one too.
Ignacio Contreras: It’s very fun.
Daniel Newman: It was a lot of fun.
Ignacio Contreras: Yes. But going back to the modem-RF system, you don’t manage that big models, but they need to be resolved very quickly because when you are dealing with 5G in those connections, every instant matters. So you cannot turn two milliseconds to resolve the AI network. You need to resolve the neural network and resolve the inference in just one millisecond or less. That’s why we need to include dedicated AI capabilities in hardware on the modem-RF system, because it’s not about large neural networks, but you need to run them very, very fast.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, a lot more things are going to need to be done at the edge with AI, and that’s going to create a big opportunity for your company because we’re seeing everything done in the data center right now. And of course, with the Cloud AI 100 or you have a little bit of technology that definitely can move into the data center, but at the edge, we’re not going to be able to send everything back.
Ignacio Contreras: No.
Daniel Newman: That latency-free experience is going to be critical.
Ignacio Contreras: Even more, you were talking about energy efficiency, right? Each time, let’s say, you run a ChatGPT query, right? It’s a lot of servers that are using electricity, right, and using power, and it’s cost money, right, to run those queries. So there’s a lot of interest, how much of that can you run on the device? That’s why we did the demonstration of Stable Diffusion run on device, because in a hybrid model or something that basically you can offload some of these capabilities to the device itself, then you can make it more stable, more effective, even more energy efficient. So it’s yes-
Daniel Newman: Yeah, absolutely.
Ignacio Contreras: …AI is coming everywhere and on device, a lot.
Daniel Newman: So with this new system, talk a little bit about the industry impacts. Qualcomm’s been a lot more focused on being involved in different industry, manufacturing, automotive, expanding. What’s the industry implications of the new X75?
Ignacio Contreras: Industry implications is that, again, we are continue to accelerate, right, the pace on which we bring new 5G features into all these domains, which might be very different. For instance, for fixed wireless access, we build a new platform based on this X75 modem-RF system that enables you to have a more robust connection to provide 5G internet connection to homes using 5G.
One example in India. You should look at India very carefully. I think I said that on the episode we have on the Snapdragon Summit. But some operators are looking to connect 100 million homes using 5G. That’s a huge impact not just in terms of business, but in terms of how many people, right, you can connect. You can help reach the digital divide.
And it will be very hard to start digging the soil, get in the streets, and laying that fiber or cable there. With 5G, now you can deploy it more effectively and really change kind of many lives and bring people kind of on board into the digital age. That’s one area in which many of the capabilities, right, we’re talking on millimeter wave beamforming and sensing of X75 will play a role, right? Which is different for what you need on the phone. And for the car as well, you have other applications, right? For PCs as well, you need other things. But we have made this platform as flexible as possible to be able to enable all kind of industries, and it’s part of the now diversification approach from Qualcomm. Qualcomm is no longer a mobile company, it’s an automotive company, it’s an IoT company, it’s a PC company, right? And-
Daniel Newman: I think mobility is really the… It’s not just mobile, it’s mobility. The things that need to move and be flexible and always connected.
Ignacio Contreras: More than that, it’s everything that’s on the edge. If you look at the cloud, right, as a big part of the internet, we provide technology, intelligence, connectivity to all the things that are on the other side. What’s called the edge, what you can think is the devices that are around you. Yes, is your phone, is your car, it’s what you have in your home. That’s what we’re doing. We’re bringing all these connectivity and intelligent technologies to all these kind of edge devices.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, Cristiano, your CEO, likes to say the connected intelligent edge, right?
Ignacio Contreras: Yes.
Daniel Newman: That’s the framework. So the vision is definitely starting to be very clear. And the success scenarios like automotive, industrial, IoT, retail, those are areas where you’re suddenly saying, “Wow, Qualcomm is there and playing a role.” Two, three years ago, I don’t think anybody would’ve really seen that. I know there was some work in automotive, but it’s starting to become very evident.
Speaking of kind of industries and markets, I want to sort of finish on partners in OEMs. So Qualcomm provides technology to many of the world’s… I think almost all of the major handset makers use Qualcomm technology. Talk about the new modem-RF and the new system and kind of how it’s enabling the handset makers and OEMs to grow their business, expand their product lines, and be successful.
Ignacio Contreras: Close in the circle, right, we talk about how important is connectivity in the user experience and making a difference, again, for consumers who are deciding which phone you buy. So to the extent that we can bring all these capabilities to our customers to foreign manufacturers, they can differentiate and they can basically bring the best possible experiences on 5G and also on the Snapdragon model platform and all the other processing elements to them.
So the needs are not stopping. We see now more need for AI, as we saw with the Stable Diffusion and what we discussed before, we see more need for 5G capabilities. And all of that needs to be still on a cost-effective manner. So we need to integrate everything, the 5G, the RF front end, all components in a very power-efficient, cost-efficient manner to enable all these global OEMs to participate. And remember, not just to commercialize phones in one particular regions, right?
Many of the manufacturers in China are looking to expand globally. They’re already expanding globally. So they need to develop phones that can work anywhere in the world, whatever its frequency, or its millimeter wave, whatever Sub-6, combination with 4G. We need to put all of that into this very small package. So yes, this is how it will enable, will allow manufacturers to create new superior phones that are coming soon to user hands, and provide better experiences, and therefore, consumers, right, get the return for the money they’re putting into the device.
Daniel Newman: Yeah, I’ve had the benefit of using a number of the Snapdragon-powered premium Android devices, and I will say as someone that uses both ecosystems, and obviously, Qualcomm powers both in different ways, it’s been amazing to watch the evolution of the Android and the premium tier devices. The AI on board for things like image sensors, unbelievable. I do a lot of left, right picture taking, and let me just say there’s a clear winner in those things.
And in terms of connectivity, it’s been very impressive to just watch all the features and all the innovation. And by the way, we’re kind of out of time here, but all the innovations that have come from Qualcomm invention and engineering, there’s so many things people I don’t think realize that happened in your R&D that have become part of that overall chipset that these OEMs license to be able to build these devices.
Ignacio Contreras: Well, connectivity makes a difference. 5G makes a difference. And you include the best 5G, consumers will notice and they will lean towards, again, the best experiences we can provide. So that’s our role, and we’re here happy to share that with all our customers.
Daniel Newman: Ignacio, thank you so much for joining me here on the Futurum Tech Podcast.
Ignacio Contreras: Very nice to speak to you again. Thanks for having me. Take care.
Daniel Newman: All right, everybody. Thank you so much for tuning into this episode. Hit that subscribe button, join us for all of our shows here on the Futurum Tech Podcast. We appreciate you tuning in. But for this episode, thank you so much. We’ll see you all later.
Daniel Newman is the Chief Analyst of Futurum Research and the CEO of The Futurum Group. Living his life at the intersection of people and technology, Daniel works with the world’s largest technology brands exploring Digital Transformation and how it is influencing the enterprise. Read Full Bio